Release Ozzy Ozone held prisoner by brand guardians!

In September 2007, I wrote about Ozzy Ozone, an energetic, cheerful little ozone molecule – part of the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere that prevents the Sun’s harmful ultra-violet rays from coming through and causing skin cancer, cataract and other health problems.

Ozzy Ozone is part of a global public education effort by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) to tell everyone how harmful UV rays are to our health, and how Ozzy and his fellow ozone molecules are literally protecting life on earth from being zapped out.

I called Ozzy the little molecule on a big mission — to tell all humans to soon phase out using certain chemicals that, when released to the air, go up and destroy his kind.

Last week, while attending a UNEP meeting in Bangkok to plan the next ozone communication strategy for Asia Pacific, I heard some disturbing news: little Ozzy has become a prisoner of his brand guardians. As a result, he is not as free as he could be to roam the planet, spreading the vital ozone message.

Anne Fenner, Information Officer of UNEP’s OzonAction Programme revealed how she routinely turns down requests to produce toys and other material using the popular character.

“I have had so many requests from companies, but we cannot allow commercial exploitation of this brand,” Anne said.

I was stunned. Here is one of the more popular communication products to emerge from the UN, not generally known for such successful engagement of popular culture. And there we were, brainstorming on ways to get the ozone message to large, scattered (and distracted) audiences.

Ozzy was created by a graphic artist in Barbados, as part of a government-supported campaign to raise public awareness on ozone layer thinning. This cartoon character served as a “mascot” and was very effective in raising awareness in Barbados. The cartoon series was printed in local newspapers. Additionally, promotional items produced for local public awareness and education campaigns using the Ozzy graphic include posters, key rings, rulers, erasers, refrigerator magnets, mouse pads, pens, pencils, stickers, and envelopes.

The character was so popular that UNEP struck a deal with Barbados to ‘globalize’ Ozzy. An animated video was produced, along with a dedicated website, comic strips and other media adaptations.

Ozzy has been a run-away success, giving UNEP a high profile, widely popular character — and a great deal of media coverage and interest. The kind of media engagement that is typically enjoyed by Unicef, the most media-savvy of all UN agencies.

But we now know that Ozzy’s brand guardians don’t allow him to go as far as he could. They may be playing by the rules, but do they realise that huge opportunities are being lost?

There we were, a small group of journalists, communicators, scientists and government officials discussing for three days how to get the biggest bang for our collectively limited buck where ozone messaging is concerned.

It was frustrating to know that the best brand ambassador has been locked up in brand integrity and copyright restrictions.

I suggested to Anne Fenner that protecting the brand integrity need not be so rigidly pursued. For example, careful franchising could be undertaken based on a set of guidelines — and the royalty could go into a trust fund that supports ozone communication work.

Indeed, the challenge for development communicators everywhere is to find the common ground between the public interest and the commercial interest. In this era of globalised media and CSR, the two interests are no longer mutually exclusive. Some might argue they never were.

The long-established copyright regimes themselves are being questioned, challenged and bypassed by a growing number of research, advocacy and activist groups. Many now publish their academic or artistic work under Creative Commons licenses, that enable their creators to be acknowledged and retain some control — and yet allow many types of uses without excessive restriction.

When TVE Asia Pacific recently released an Asian regional book called Communicating Disasters, our co-publisher UNDP Regional Centre in Bangkok proposed that the book be under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license. We were happy to go along.

UNEP has some catching up to do. Turning the pages of lavishly illustrated Ozzy Ozone comic story books (of which 3 titles have come out so far), I found that UNEP has the standard copyright restriction. However, they add a line: “This publication may be reproduced in whole or part and in any form for educational or non-profit purposes without special permission from the copyright holder, provided acknowledgement of the source is made.”

That’s encouraging – but not good enough. What happens if a commercially operated media organisation wants to use this content for public interest? Will they qualify under ‘educational or non-profit purposes’?

Probably not. And that’s when the dreaded copyright lawyers could come marching out.

It’s the assorted lawyers and over-cautious officials who are keeping Ozzy Ozone a virtual prisoner.

And sadly, little Ozzy is not alone. Everywhere in the publishing and media world, we can find many examples of how creative works are being held back – usually by over-protective lawyers or accountants. Sometimes that’s the case even if the artistes or media professionals themselves would much rather let go of the rights.

In July 2007, I wrote a blog post called ‘The lawyers who locked up the butterfly tree’ — which revealed how lawyers working for the publicly-funded BBC had systematically blocked a multi-award winning African documentary film from being used for environmental education, awareness and advocacy. All because the BBC had partly funded its production, and therefore had a claim on its copyright.

So here’s our plea to Ozzy’s brand guardians in UNEP: let him roam free, taking the vital message to millions. And while at it, let him make some money (from franchisees) which can suppot the rest of UNEP’s ozone communication work.

And if some spoilsport of a copyright lawyer gets in the way, tell him/her to take a beach vacation — without sunblock.

Related links:
Sep 2006: Make poverty a copyright free zone

May 2007: TVEAP renews call for poverty as a copyright free zone