Why Doctor Who fans are criticising the BBC’s stance on copyright
Fans are complaining that the BBC position on video reviews, fan dramas and fan fiction is stifling their creativity – but what’s the real story behind the dispute?
Doctor Who fans have always been a little different. After decades of the show being on air there’s a particular kind of devotion, excitement and sense of ownership over what began as a somewhat educational children’s programme about a time traveller, but morphed into an international brand that sometimes awkwardly straddles its dual identity.
Is Doctor Who a cobbled-together, utterly charming string-and-pluck British production best discussed by enthusiasts in pub back rooms? Or is it a forward-looking, glossy media juggernaut recognised from coast to coast? Sometimes, it just about manages to exist as both – but sometimes, it’s hard to be the figurehead of a grassroots fan community and a brand.
And one of those times is now. In recent weeks there’s been fan uproar over a series of copyright disputes surrounding Doctor Who, with fans complaining that the BBC appears to be trying to shut down fan-created content including audio dramas, review videos and even fan fiction. But is the BBC really attempting to oppress the fans it’s so often relied on? Have they really banned fan fiction? Well, no – but the real truth is a bit complicated.
And for Billy Garratt-John, the story begins earlier. Billy works in TV production (a career choice he credits to behind-the-scenes show Doctor Who Confidential), has been creating fan content, fan films and reviews about Doctor Who for the last decade, and considers himself firmly a part of the Whovian fan community.
His latest project? An unlicensed online audio drama (in the vein of licensed Who audio producers Big Finish) called The Dark Dimension, adapting a script which had been written but never actually used for Doctor Who’s 30th anniversary in 1993.
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“The rehearsal script had been pottering online for years, and it was freely accessible. I thought that during lockdown, it might be fun to adapt it, just to see what material you could pull out of it,” Billy tells me.
Recruiting some friends and fellow creatives bored at home, Billy created a four-part adaptation of Adrian Rigelsford’s original script, which had been circulating online on reddit (and on a Google Drive) for a number of years. Billy was set to upload it to his YouTube channel, one of the many unauthorised but overlooked Who fan projects that had existed for years long before the mainstream internet even existed.
“Obviously they didn’t option the script to make it back in the day, so it’s kind of fallen into this weird grey area where nobody really knows who it belongs to,” he says.
“And then in January of this year, just before it was scheduled to start going out, I got an email from BBC Studios, from their brand protection team, basically just asking, ‘What’s the craic? Just making sure that everything you’re doing is above board.””
What followed was a fairly cordial exchange – Billy could show that he hadn’t stolen the script – and it concluded amicably.
“It basically came down to them saying, ‘Look, you can go ahead with this, but just please follow these guidelines, and remove it from the internet after three months.’”
Billy was happy to oblige – but then when he announced another (entirely fan-written) audio project he was contacted by BBC Studios again, citing concerns that he was going against the spirit of their previous agreement by making more fan content.
“I’ve seen people online saying that, you know, ‘News flash, the BBC have never allowed these. They’ve never been cool with these things.’ Or, ‘Copyright laws exist. What a shock?’” he tells me.
“People are aware of this. They know that. But it’s always been a grey area, and it would be nice to get some clarification on what is, or what isn’t, allowed.”
Of course, it’s within the BBC’s right to check up on possible infringements of copyright – but what appears to bother Billy more is what he sees as a double standard, with more serious copyright infringements (including full episode uploads to the website Dailymotion) apparently ignored while the BBC directly set their sights on specific fans.
And then there’s Mission to the Unknown. In 2019, a group of students successfully staged and recreated a “lost” episode of Doctor Who of the same name, a project heartily endorsed and publicised by the BBC on their social media channels.
“I don’t know how much of that was allowed to go ahead, or what conversations had happened beforehand,” he says. “But is it one rule for one group of people, and another rule for the rest of us?”
And among the fan community there’s a sense of grievance more generally. Above many other properties, Doctor Who is famed for its fans’ creative endeavours, with many who have written or starred on the show (including regular writer/actor Mark Gatiss and voice of the Daleks and Big Finish Creative Director Nick Briggs) formerly creating their Doctor Who knock-offs in the years that the series was off TV (you can read more in our short history of Doctor Who fan films).
“I’m under no illusions that, you know, these fan works have always been in a legal grey area,” Billy says. “But fan films have been prominent in the community since the 1990s, and they kind of kept the flame of the show burning when it was off air.
“A lot of those people that worked on those fan productions subsequently went on to put the building blocks together for 21st century, new Who.”
“I think many fans feel ownership over the show,” one fan, who wishes to remain anonymous, told me.
“Especially after the Wilderness Years where the BBC abandoned the show, and the fans kept it alive. Many of these fan productions were licensed products, so they exist in a different space. But many of these licensed productions started as fan fiction! Published in fan magazines, which didn't have the copyright. Just because it's on the internet doesn't mean it's any different.”
Adds Billy: “It just seems like, the culture of what is and isn’t allowed has changed significantly enough that we’re all asking: what are we, or are we not, allowed to do?”
This question seems to be resonating more and more with Whovians. While other popular sci-fi brands (including Star Wars and Star Trek) have occasionally published guidelines about what people can and can’t include in their fan-made content the BBC has not done so, leading to a culture where some fans blithely commit copyright infringement with no repercussions while others are pushed into a war of attrition, regularly challenging and overturning copyright strikes on YouTube that still see their videos delayed or demonetised.
This erupted into a larger discussion recently when a BBC FAQs page appeared to suggest that Doctor Who fan fiction of any kind would not be permitted to be published online, a statement that attracted criticism from TV Doctor Who writers including Paul Cornell and Sarah Dollard.
However, on closer inspection many noted that this page had not been updated since 2014 – elsewhere on the same site a guide for how fans could write their own fan fiction also exists, and after speaking to BBC Studios (the commercial arm of the BBC) RadioTimes.com understands that there may have been some confusion over what was actually meant by the fan fiction guideline.
Specifically, BBC Studios tells us now that fan fiction is permitted providing it doesn’t copy Doctor Who scripts, artwork or imagery and isn’t being published for commercial reasons. The same goes for fan audios, which presumably means Billy’s new project – provided it’s not published for commercial purposes – can go ahead.
“We welcome and often encourage fans to use Doctor Who as inspiration for their own original creative works,” a BBC Studios spokesperson told RadioTimes.com. "But we don’t allow scripts, artwork, or video to be copied, or this work to be used for commercial purposes.”
All together, it sounds pretty fair and reasonable – but it isn’t just creator projects where fans are falling foul of copyright. Elsewhere on YouTube, the BBC’s enforcement of copyright is causing more clashes, feeding into the same backlash as the larger “fan fiction” debate.
Take Will Carlisle. In 2018, Will was stunned to see himself on the screen in San Diego Comic-Con’s Hall H – among many other fans – as a montage played of reactions to Jodie Whittaker’s unveiling as the Thirteenth Doctor, taken from various YouTube videos. It was a great moment – but the next morning, his excitement was slightly overshadowed.
“It was a bit disheartening because the very next day, I woke up to several emails saying that the BBC had put manual [copyright] claims on my channel for BBC reviews of Doctor Who and a show called Single Father,” Will tells me.
“And it was a manual claim. It wasn’t an automated thing. Someone had gone through my library, or gone searching on YouTube that day, and found those videos.
“It was strange that they would like to use fan content to promote and platform their show on the biggest stage on the planet, and also use that platform’s same mechanisms to try to create a hostile environment for those same creators.”
Will has been making Doctor Who videos – reactions, reviews and so on – for around 11 years on YouTube, where he has amassed around 20,000 subscribers. In the last few years, he says that he’s noticed an uptick in copyright claims on his content by the BBC, though he insists his videos fall under Fair Use (which applies to criticism, reviews and so on).
Apparently, every single time Will has challenged these claims with YouTube, the BBC complaint has been dismissed (“not a single content ID claim that the BBC have manually or automatically done has been upheld,” he says) – but slow responses and delays, intentional or not have often meant he has to wait 60 days for his videos to go live again.
“I’ve done reviews of shows from ITV, Channel 4. I’ve done film reviews from companies like Disney, from Warner Bros – most big distributors, basically,” Will says. “And while those videos do regularly get picked up by content ID – you dispute them within a day or two, and they’re actually like, ‘Oh, this is a review. This is Fair Use. You’re OK to do it.’
“The BBC are the only company that I’ve had these issues with. It’s not even comparable. It’s not even close. The BBC have been the most strict and the most stubborn.”
“It’s been a proper battle for a lot of creatives for a long time to find some kind of middle-ground where the BBC are happy with this content being online,” adds Billy. “And then sometimes they just go crazy with their takedown notifications, and stuff just disappears. It really demotivates people, and I think damages the brand of Doctor Who as well.”
So what’s the solution? One fan has started a petition on Change.org, apparently to draw attention to the various disputes currently ticking along.
“The current experience of BBC Studios staff contacting fanfiction and fan audioplays about [their] own original non-profit ventures - is concerning,” the petition reads.
“The manual targeting of those who use clips of the show for review purposes or for 'Top 10' videos that strongly promote the episodes that they are discussing - is concerning.
“We, of the Doctor Who fandom - both creators and the viewers of said creators - call upon you to make a strong reconsideration of the actions you are taking against passionate fans who are doing no damage to the sales or marketability of the brand.”
At time of writing, the petition has picked up just over 200 signatures – a distance short of the 500-signature target – and the fans I spoke to were dubious about its efficacy, with some even worried that it might make the BBC more inclined to crack down via the handy list of signatories.
Meanwhile, some others think that a centralised set of guidelines saying what fans can and can’t do would iron out some of the misunderstandings – though some also think this could backfire, strangling fan creativity instead of encouraging it.
“I don’t think there is a best-case scenario that they can publicly do,” Will says. “I don’t think that they should have a blog post that says, ‘OK, you’re allowed to use ‘x’ amount of footage. You’re allowed to make ‘x’ amount of videos.’ Because the fandom’s going to do what the fandom’s going to do.
“I think they should protect their copyright in the way that other companies do, but also not manually strike obviously transformative and Fair Use content. If someone uploads a review of an episode, that’s different from someone just uploading the entire episode.
“And it seems like the BBC have got a policy of: ‘No, all of it’s the same, and we’re going to treat it exactly the same.’"
Everyone I spoke to for this piece was clear on one thing – they’re fans of Doctor Who's current Jodie Whittaker/Chris Chibnall iteration, and not looking to push an anti-BBC agenda. But that's not true of everyone on the internet.
Look on YouTube for Doctor Who content, and a lot of what greets you are video rants lambasting the current state of the show or complaining about Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor, sometimes (though rarely) even veering into sexism or racism. Take away these more well-meaning projects and reviews, Will and Billy suggest, and what’s left beyond the negativity?
“Do the BBC want that to be Doctor Who’s YouTube presence?” Will says.
“Do they want to discourage fans? It’s just making things more hostile within a fandom that does not need any more provocation.”
“I do also understand that the BBC want to protect what belongs to them,” Billy adds. “But I don’t know of anybody who’s managed to make a dime illegally from Doctor Who-related content.
“It’s always been a sort of dubious handshake agreement being made with creators and big IP owners. ‘We’ll let you get on with it, because it could actually mutually benefit all of us.’
"So it does seem very odd that these big, sweeping moves have been made by the BBC in the last sort of couple of months.”
“As a YouTuber you're not making money until you have a hundred thousand subscribers, and that's not going to happen for me,” another fan, who made a listicle video that gained them a copyright strike, adds. “I am barely covering costs. I am losing money constantly.”
Going forward, it seems unlikely that this issue can entirely be resolved. The BBC are within their rights to play copyright whack-a-mole (in fact, if they don’t enforce copyright they could lose the rights to their properties), and the diffuse nature of the Doctor Who fandom means that some creators are likely to feel the pinch more than others. Likewise, it’s unlikely that this kind of dispute would actually do much damage to the main viewership of the show, who are slightly less engaged with this level of online controversy.
But the whole thing has definitely cast a pall over the enthusiasm and creativity of the kind of viewers the BBC (and the separate BBC Studios) have previously been keen to hold up and showcase as an example of positive fandom. And it’s possible that some of them are turned off Who for good.
“I know that my videos do nothing to hurt the Doctor Who brand,” one WhoTuber, who wishes to remain anonymous, tells RadioTimes.com. Despite having positive correspondences with the BBC before, they tell me that a series of recent copyright disputes have put them off making any more Doctor Who content going forward.
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“I know my videos promote the show, and help keep the community alive. I should be able to monetise my content, because it falls under fair use. YouTube says we're allowed to monetise under fair use, but the BBC doesn't.
“I don't know why they're punishing us for promoting their show,” they concluded.
That’s the kind of perception the BBC would be keen to avoid – but if Doctor Who truly has changed, it might be a downside they're willing to live with.