Early this past fall, a user of Reddit, an online message board of user-submitted content, posed the question “Could I destroy the Roman Empire during the reign of Augustus if I traveled back in time with a modern U.S. Marine infantry battalion or MEU?” A few hours later, a user going by the name Prufrock451 submitted the beginning of what it appears will be a very long answer.

He wrote:

DAY 1 The 35th MEU is on the ground at Kabul, preparing to deploy to southern Afghanistan. Suddenly, it vanishes. The section of Bagram where the 35th was gathered suddenly reappears in a field outside Rome, on the west bank of the Tiber River. Without substantially prepared ground under it, the concrete begins sinking into the marshy ground and cracking. Colonel Miles Nelson orders his men to regroup near the vehicle depot – nearly all of the MEU’s vehicles are still stripped for air transport. He orders all helicopters airborne, believing the MEU is trapped in an earthquake. Nelson’s men soon report a complete loss of all communications, including GPS and satellite radio. Nelson now believes something more terrible has occurred – a nuclear war and EMP which has left his unit completely isolated. Only a few men have realized that the rest of Bagram has vanished, but that will soon become apparent as the transport helos begin circling the 35th’s location.”

Over the course of the day, Prufrock451 wrote seven installments of speculative fiction, each constituting the story of one day in the life of the Marine Expeditionary Unit as it came to terms with the practical (and political) realities of being transported to ancient Rome, very well armed, but very poorly equipped to confront a one of the most highly sophisticated yet belligerent civilizations in world history.

The story was very well received by Reddit users, who, with great enthusiasm, urged Prufrock451 to continue updating the narrative. But after spending most of the day working on the story, he finally wrote:

Thank you all, thank you so damn much. But I am at a desk job, and I have freelance stuff to wrap up tonight. As giddy as I am right now on your Internet-love, I have to get back to my real-world responsibilities. I do not want to get stabbed by angry nerd-hordes, so I hereby pledge to keep this rolling.”

With that, Prufrock451 established a “subreddit” entitled Rome Sweet Rome, in which he promised to continue updating the story with the help of other Reddit users who knew more about modern military equipment and practices or who had greater knowledge of Roman history.

That same day, a production company manager from Madhouse Entertainment saw Prufrock451’s work, was impressed, and reached out to him to request that he write a screenplay based on the story. Prufrock451, who in his ordinary life is 37-year-old James Erwin, a writer of software manuals who had once appeared on Jeopardy, agreed to work on the screenplay with Madhouse in order to shop it to movie and television studios.

Meanwhile, work continued on the project at the Rome Sweet Rome subreddit, where others suggested different characters, military issues, realities of Roman politics, artwork, maps, and even a proposed soundtrack. But very soon after, Prufrock451 announced that he’d been working with a production company and within a couple of days informed the group that he would no longer be posting about the project in the subreddit. Erwin and Madhouse had begun talks with Warner Bros., who soon offered him an advance to write a full treatment for production.

Many contributors and followers of the subreddit offered their congratulations, and some cautioned Erwin about researching his legal rights before signing any deals. Others began to wonder whether the Reddit user who had posed the initial question should get some credit.

One of the contributors sparked a discussion about how the story wouldn’t have been what it was, and wouldn’t have gotten the attention it did, without the contributions of all the other users who gave Prufrock451 ideas, inspiration, encouragement, and, quite importantly, publicity. Many of the commenters agreed that the story became a lot better due to the input from the highly enthusiastic and knowledgable community.

This discusion had caught upon an idea that the contributors to the Rome Sweet Rome subreddit may be a better group for developing the story than one the studio might put together. And while current copyright law clearly cannot envision so many contributors as co-authors in a manageable division of creator’s rights, it is an intriguing idea to think of the quality that could be brought to this sort of project by a large advisory group that’s willing and able to make genuine improvements the story.

In an ideal world, the producers of Erwin’s treatment would encourage the Rome Sweet Rome subreddit to continue its work on the details of the life of modern marines in ancient Rome, contract with the originators of the best ideas so that those ideas may be used and the creators compensated, and institute the first modern crowdsourced film project or television series.

Is this kind of collective creativity a real possibility for the future of audiovisual works? Or are the legal and proprietary barriers just too much?

Collins Kilgore

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2 Responses to Rome Sweet Rome: A Collective Online Thought Experiment Turned Screenplay

  1. Katharine Skinner says:

    Jordan, I agree with your comment about the compensation incentive, and I also think that Warner Bros is actually hurting its own potential compensation by stopping further interest in the movie that would occur with the continuation of the large-scale joint authorship. They would gather so much interest and free advertising if they allowed the project to continue on Reddit, and presumably would still be allowed to take any creative liberties they want in making changes to the movie. If people become fully engaged in the story, the interest in the movie adaptation will be augmented (ex: any successful book-turned-to-movie, a la Harry Potter or The Hunger Games). I understand their current copyright concern, but in the future if it would be possible to contract with some of the contributors as Collins suggested, it could be potentially lucrative, and not harmful, for the movie studios.

  2. Jordan Teague says:

    I think it’s possible! True, current copyright law is a poor fit for large-scale joint authorship: since “co-author” status requires much more than tiny contributions to a work, it is difficult to acknowledge the individuals involved in large-scale joint creation as legal “co-authors” entitled to compensation. Yet large-scale joint authorship has been happening anyway, and will likely continue to happen. I think this is because there is a big assumption in copyright law that breaks down in the large-scale joint authorship context–the assumption that creation requires a monetary incentive. I doubt that the members of the subreddit had any expectations of royalties from their contributions to the Rome Sweet Rome thread; rather, they participated because they enjoyed the creative process. Rome Sweet Rome members did seem offended by the fact that Prufrock451 reaped all of what the subreddit sowed. If we want to see more large-scale joint authorship, perhaps we should focus less on how to compensate joint authors and more on how to prevent free-riding, which could have a demoralizing effect that ends large-scale creation altogether.