Bridgerton is the Netflix television sensation that enraptured the United States in late 2020. Arriving just in time for the Christmas holiday season after a fraught election cycle and during a COVID-19 surge, Bridgerton was met with such positive reception that it quickly became a must-see series on Netflix with a premiere viewership rating that put it as the second most-watched series on the platform to date. A derivative work itself, Netflix’s Bridgerton is based on the book series by Julia Quinn, a Regency-era series set between 1813 and 1827. However, as a Shonda Rhimes production, the television show is so much more, effortlessly weaving people of color into high society London in a reimagined history. The show was a piece of comfort in a difficult political environment, and it was just what fans needed at the height of the pandemic.
Two fans took their love for Bridgerton farther, taking to TikTok in an open, collaborative fan-driven process to transform the beloved television show into something different. With a first few rough but beautiful lines, Abigail Barlow shared the beginnings of a song, “Ocean Away,” with her friend Emily Bear. Together, they explored the concept: What if Bridgerton was a musical?
[Description: Barlow proposing the concept for Bridgerton the Musical and performing Ocean Away for the first time on TikTok]
@bridgertonmusical Welcome to Bridgerton the Musical: the TikTok account! Concept and music all by @abigailbarlowww #bridgertonmusical #tiktokmusical #foryou #daphne ♬ original sound – Bridgerton the Musical
What started as a fan-driven passion led to 36 million likes on TikTok, an invitation to sing at the Kennedy Center Honors, an album release, and a Grammy nomination.[Description: Barlow and Bear performing Ocean Away at the Kennedy Center]
This magical journey of two young female artists breaking into traditionally inaccessible spaces and finding success by embracing fan communities and open creation was made possible by the ease with which Netflix allowed them to secure permission. This unrestricted permission resembles nothing fan communities have ever seen. The extent of the permission is evident from the absence of Netflix branding or credit in The Unofficial Bridgerton Musical songs or merchandise. Only Barlow, Bear and their production company Barlow & Bear receive credit for the production. This deviates vastly from the standard fan-creator relationship with copyright holders, which is typically steeped in conditions and uncertainty. A good example of this dynamic is the lengths to which the creators of A Very Potter Musical have gone to avoid legal issues with Warner Brothers, including issuing statements against reproductions of their work. As a parody of the Harry Potter series, A Very Potter Musical arguably qualifies as fair use and wouldn’t require permission from Warner Brothers; however, the threat of legal action from a powerful entity like Warner Brothers deters the production of fan-created works and makes creators very cautious.[Description: Creators of A Very Potter Musical singing about not wanting to be sued]
Similarly, Paramount and CBS heavily restrict Star Trek fan films, and Disney heavily restricts fan films for Star Wars. The contrast between these companies’ approach to fan content and Netflix’s approach is stark. When asked about obtaining permission, Barlow and Bear expressed the ease and support with which Netflix responded to the request. The result of this creative freedom allowed by Netflix was robust cross-platform fan interaction from TikTok to Instagram, which kept fans engaged in the work between installments.
The difference in Netflix’s approach to fan works likely stems from the company’s history. Where Paramount, CBS, Disney, and Warner Brothers have been content creators for the entirety of their existence, Netflix started as a content purchaser adding content creation only after a decade of life as a publicly-traded company. Moreover, Netflix is far more responsive to fans than traditional media companies, as seen in their procurement of cancelled shows at the request of fans.
As a new media company operating on a subscription model, Netflix likely has more flexibility to take business risks, including with their copyright holdings. These risks have the potential to benefit fan-creators, as was the case with the Unofficial Bridgerton Musical. Copyright-holders must self-police their copyrights, but the rights afforded to them are expansive. Large media companies and content creators can strictly enforce their exclusive rights to their content, but doing so can alienate the fans and communities that develop around beloved creations. This can place fan communities in tension with the companies that produce and own the content, which can negatively affect the benefits copyright holders can derive from their creations.
Instead, traditional media companies should be more like Netflix, especially when it comes to fan-created works. They should acknowledge that there is room for more than just their version of a story. After all, demand for the two-part play Harry Potter: The Cursed Child wasn’t negatively affected by the existence of A Very Potter Musical. Moreover, demand for the musical was so high that the play successfully opened as a two-part experience requiring viewers to purchase two separate tickets to view the entire story. The play was wildly successful in London before moving to Broadway in New York. The success of A Cursed Child during the run of A Very Potter Musical demonstrates that fan creations do not diminish demand for official productions. Instead, traditional media companies should realize that allowing fans to create broadens and strengthens the community, which will enable them to further profit from their copyright. In the case of the Unofficial Bridgerton Musical, collaborative fan experiences reached beyond the original Netflix viewers of Bridgerton and increased the fandom. After all, I would know nothing about Netflix’s Bridgerton without the fan community that grew around the Unofficial Bridgerton Musical. I doubt that I’m the only one similarly affected.