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May The 4th Be With Your Brand: A Legal Guide To Making Star Wars Tributes

©iStock.com/Brendan Hunter

By: Brian J. Meli

Once every year, the inner sci-fi geek in all of us gets a chance to reclaim a sliver of that wide-eyed wonder of youth, and unite with like-minded souls in a nostalgic embrace of the pop-culture phenomenon that imbued an entire generation with the solemn precept, “may the force be with you.” Thirty-seven years after the original Star Wars movie hit the big screen, May the 4th has become a force all its own—a day fans across the world come together to pay their respects to the galaxy’s most culturally significant space drama (apologies to Star Trek fans) and to celebrate its enduring legacy. The amplifying effect of social media has only intensified the day’s popularity, raising awareness among casual fans, while inspiring new generations of Star Wars disciples.

But May the 4th has become more than just a commemoration for the young at heart. It’s also a time when marketing managers begin thinking up innovative ways to honor the Star Wars legacy. Increasingly the day has become an opportunity for Fortune 500 companies—eager to connect with the movies’ legions of adoring fans—to link their brands to the Star Wars mystique; a fact that’s becoming more apparent with each passing year. Here’s just a small sampling of what some companies have done to mark the day on social media.

Paying homage to the Star Wars universe is nothing new. The franchise is famous for inspiring fan-created content from all corners of the universe; everything from street art to homemade short films. And the vast majority of it is unauthorized. The practice is so widespread that George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, was forced to embrace it officially rather than risk alienating the loyal fan base that helped turn his obscure space opera into a cultural movement.

However, as Jedi Master Yoda was keen on saying, “always in motion the future is.” Changing the times are, and circumstances are very different now than when the original Star Wars trilogy was in its heyday. For starters, the Star Wars properties are no longer owned by Lucasfilm, Lucas’ eponymous production company, but by The Walt Disney Company, who purchased Lucasfilm in late 2012 and has since assumed the ambitious task of evolving the franchise for a new audience by investing heavily in its future success. For another, the power of the Internet and social media have taken the production and distribution of fan content to levels that not even the most force-sensitive Jedi could have foreseen in the early 1980s. Long gone are the days when only the kid down the block with the Boba Fett jet pack could share in your Star Wars obsession. Nowadays fan sites can generate huge cult followings, and fan films, fan art and remixes and mash-ups can rival the quality of the genuine articles. While this has unleashed a new wave of amateur creativity that in many ways has been good for the movie business—generating buzz and expanding interest among the general public—it’s also precipitated the need for rights holders to increase their vigilance.

So this year, as May the 4th approaches, it’s worth taking a few minutes to consider the legal implications of paying corporate homage to Star Wars. Contrary to the mantra of the brash, no-nonsense space smuggler Han Solo—whose catch phrase “never tell me the odds” endeared him to audiences—some risks are worth measuring before making the jump to light-speed. So here are a few things to consider before your company channels the force this May the 4th:

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Getty Has An Image Problem: The Portrait of a Modern Copyright Dilemma




By: Brian J. Meli

To be, or not to be, that is the question—
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing, end them?

~Prince Hamlet

Google ‘Getty Images’ and ‘demand letter’ and you’ll have your pick of vitriol-laced horror stories to choose from. The storylines vary case-by-case, but the narrative is usually the same: Getty Images is a predatory company that’s made an unscrupulous art form out of extorting millions of dollars from unsuspecting Internet-goers. Most of the accounts you’ll read go something like this: someone unwittingly uses an image from the company’s library without permission on his/her website, social media page or blog, triggering a pernicious demand letter containing sweeping allegations of copyright infringement. The demand letter then seeks compensation in an amount significantly above what most consider reasonable—but below what’s usually worth hiring a lawyer to mount a defense over—in exchange for the matter being dropped; leading ultimately to the response de rigueur of “just pay the bastards.”

It’s this perceived extortion as a business model that invokes such public hostility, has given rise to entire online gripe communities, and why, I suspect, if you’re conducting an opinion poll among Internet users asking what word best describes the Seattle-based company, you’ll get responses like “unreasonable,” “bully” and maybe even “criminal.” The negative sentiment runs deep, and was on full display recently when a particularly able-bodied recipient of one such demand letter (an intellectual property law firm), responded with a lawsuit of its own. The public’s jubilant response to the prospect of Getty getting some comeuppance sent a loud and clear message: Getty Images is the company everyone loves to hate.

But is Getty really the villain people make it out to be? Or is it merely a misunderstood company doing what it can to protect its interests and guard its digital property in this age of point, click and copy?

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