Thanks to a convergence of technology and major brand licensees staring down the inevitability of Internet "mash-up" culture, we are about to see the line between creating "fan art" and being an authorized brand designer get blurred like never before.
All you need is a dollar and a dream. Or, more specifically, a 3-D printer and an undying love of My Little Pony.
On Monday Toy giant Hasbro—the company behind all the best toys from the 1980s—unveiled a groundbreaking partnership with 3-D printing marketplace Shapeways that allows fan artists to produce and sell designs based on licensed material. For starters, Hasbro and Shapeways aren’t going after the legions of fans who made G.I. Joe or Transformers into Hollywood blockbusters, but instead with the enormous but uncomfortably bro-ish My Little Pony community.
"Hasbro has been incredibly innovative to realize that the existing unmet demand within their fan base can be satisfied with the help of those very same fans," says Shapeways’ Director of Marketing Carine Carmy. To kick-start the program, Hasbro and Shapeways hand-selected five "SuperFanArt" representatives to produce designs, ranging from a 3-D designer from Seattle to a mechanical engineer from France. Shapeways will open the door to new participants as the project gains momentum.
When asked if there was a sense of "if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em" in Hasbro’s decision to let the My Little Pony fan community— including but certainly not limited to the infamous "Bronies," adult male fans of the show My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic—actually play around in the product’s playground without fear of copyright infringement, Carmy concurred. To her, the partnership between Hasbro and Shapeways is an extension of the effect social media has had on brand communication with fans. "Social media was a major catalyst in breaking down the walls between brands and consumers," says Carmy. "Some brands tried to control the conversation, but eventually yielded to the inevitable. Just as social media opened up the conversation between brands and consumers, 3-D printing opens up product design and development."
Although there is a long history of fans influencing the brands they love—like young comic book fan Randy Schueller giving Marvel Comics the idea for Spider-Man’s all-black costume in 1982 and getting paid $220 for his effort or Taco Bell intern Andrea Watt inventing the Doritos taco way back in 1995—what makes this project different is how public it is. These aren’t under-the-table deals: "Hasbro contacted me to get involved," says Melinda Rose, a Seattle-based 3-D artist who is among the inaugural group of designers for the launch. " I’d always wanted to make 3-D prints of my Pony models and I’d had a lot of requests to do so over the years, but I never felt comfortable doing it because of all the legal issues. I couldn’t have dreamed of a better solution. And working with Hasbro has been great." In addition, Shapeways is providing the selected artists with printing options and materials that would ordinarily be too expensive for 3-D artists, much less the knitters and sculptors of online markets like Etsy (Rose is working on a series of Pony-themed metal jewelry she admits she’d never have had the chance to pursue otherwise). Is this a bad sign for Etsy’s future, though, when you have 3-D printing and brand licensing merge? "I think Etsy and Shapeways fill two different roles," says Rose. "I love buying handmade objects on Etsy, but as a 3-D artist I always felt sad that my creations could only live digitally. Shapeways changed that."
Hasbro’s decision to launch the program on the back of My Little Pony will raise some eyebrows, however, given the properties’ somewhat controversial fan base. The term "Brony" has gained almost universal recognition along the likes of "Trekkie," and for equally punchline-based reasons (the Fox animated series Bob’s Burgers has dedicated an entire episode to the community’s dark and unsettling underbelly). Four of the five designers hand-picked to launch the program are men (the sole female participant is Rose, who has been a devoted fan "for as long as I can remember"), so Hasbro doesn’t seem to be shying away from the much-maligned faction of its Pony fanbase. Rose, for one, defends Pony fandom for "breaking down gender boundaries."
Corporations usually won’t let fans go very far when their IP is involved. Take the Fox Network, which had turned a blind eye to knit hats inspired by their late cult series Firefly being made and sold by fans online, but then tried to put the kibosh on the whole thing after ThinkGeek.com began selling mass-produced and "officially licensed" versions on its site in 2012. Can one reckless Brony and his ill-advised Pony idea to bring the whole endeavor crashing down? Time will tell.
But to Carmy's earlier point, what Hasbro and Shapeways are doing is indicative of a radical industry-wide change. Fans are no longer being kept at arm’s length, and their DIY ethic is increasingly, if slowly, being embraced. Disney’s "Disney Infinity" game platform encourages gamers to design their own in-game worlds and share them with others. Lucasfilm is giving fans the opportunity to actually "reshoot" key scenes from the Star Wars canon (does this mean they might relax their grip on Topher Grace’s urban-legendary "re-edit" of the prequels? Yeah, probably not), and, of course, Marvel Comics has already opened its vaults to API enthusiasts.
And now Bronies have arrived to the party. If this doesn’t stop it, nothing will.
[Images courtesy of Hasbro]