Empire Declares Truce with Rebel Alliance

By Geoffrey Gerber

Sunday night, my multiverse collapsed upon itself. The Season Six premiere of Family Guy: Blue Harvest has been stalking me all summer.

At Comic-Con International in San Diego, Friday was Star Wars Day and Seth MacFarlane discussed the premiere episode during the Family Guy panel. You may have noticed sketches of Yoda and an Imperial Stormtrooper (along with tagline “May the Force be With You”) on the menu I used to discuss enforcement practices. Two weeks later, I was at the ABA Annual Meeting in San Francisco attending the Intellectual Property Law Section’s activities. While there, I had the opportunity to hear David Anderman Senior Director of Business Affairs (and lead attorney) for Lucasfilm Ltd. speak on a panel entitled “‘The Whole World is Watching!’ Privacy, Copyright and Parental Control in the Age of YouTube, MySpace and Beyond,” sponsored by the Forum on Entertainment and Sports Industries. During Anderman’s portion of the panel he discussed the Lucasfilm approach to enforcement and the Family Guy premier. Anderman explained how Lucasfilm’s relationship with Family Guy exemplifies a realistic approach to enforcement that understands branding and that has evolved with technological changes in content creation and distribution.

Star Wars has been the subject of parody since its inception and pop-cultural explosion. In 1977, Hardware Wars debuted and became an underground sensation.

 

Ten years later, a much bigger budget parody, Spaceballs, came out. This parody, was written by Mel Brooks and approved by George Lucas after he read the script and had liked Brooks’s earlier works.

As technology has evolved, it has become much easier for fans to create their own special effects masterpieces and Star Wars parodies have proliferated. In addition to improved production value, and perhaps more significantly, these short films have easy access to worldwide distribution through sites such as YouTube.

For a copyright and trademark owner, parody fair use is one thing, but an uncritical hommage or mere reference to a famous work is something else. Think of all of the pop-cultural references to Star Wars that appear in The Simpsons and — prior to Sunday’s hour-long episodeFamily Guy. Anderman confirmed that Lucasfilm “cooperates” with Fox for these references. In other words, these are all licensed uses of Lucasfilm’s intellectual property. Another example is the authorized Robot Chicken Star Wars episode by Family Guy’s Seth Green.

But what about the thousands of fan productions out there? Unable to police them all, “Lucasfilm embraced the trend.” In 2001, it struck a deal with Atom Films and created the The Official Star Wars Fan Movie Challenge. By establishing an ongoing contest, Lucasfilms creates a controlled outlet for all of these creative enterprises. Under the specific written guidelines for the contest, the entries must not contain nudity, excessive swearing, explicit sexual themes or graphic violence. Lucasfilm limits its images, music and sound that are approved for contestants’ use. Other unlicensed copyrighted material is prohibited.

Beginning in 2002, George Lucas began presenting awards to the best of the entries in this contest. For an example, you might want to check out Pink Five.

In 2003, George Lucas even presented a Pioneer award to Ernie Fosselius, the director of Hardware Wars. Originally, only parodies, documentaries, and mockumentaries were allowed in the contest (content that would have a First Amendment or fair use defense even without Lucasfilm approval). Many creative, fan-produced works such as Vader Sessions, or Star Wars George Lucas in Love,

do not necessarily fit this description. In what must be seen as an acknowledgement of the YouTube reality, Lucasfilm now allows the motion picture equivalent of fan fiction.

Anderman acknowledged the dual nature of these creative efforts which both affect and promote the brand. An IP policing and enforcement regime must take this into account. By co-opting these efforts through licensing and marketing, Lucasfilm has regained control of its IP portfolio and used the underground creative movement to further its brand. The best example of this is Lucasfilm’s role in Stephen Colbert’s Green Screen Challenge culminating in a tour de force of cross-marketing with a George Lucas appearance on the Colbert Report.


Although there are plenty of pirated clips from Sunday's episode available, if you are looking for some authorized sampling of the episode try the Star Wars site.

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Fair Use Blog - October 11, 2007 1:17 PM
It used to be pretty simple. You went to a record store (or mailed in your record-club form), bought an album or CD, and you owned it. As the owner, you had certain rights--under the First Sale and Fair Use...
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