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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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Did the USPTO Just Right a Social Wrong, Or Abridge Free Speech?


By: Brian J. Meli

The Washington Redskins football team is back in the news, but not for their astute draft day maneuverings or the buzz surrounding the start of training camp. This particular story is not a new one either—not by a long shot. In fact, it’s been the source of public debate since well before the team’s current crop of rookies were even born.

Once again, it’s the team’s name that’s grabbing headlines: Redskins. Racial slur? Or proud nickname? By canceling six different federal REDSKINS trademark registrations on the grounds that they disparage Native Americans, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) made it clear today where they stand. Whichever side you come down on, this debate is now squarely on the front page again. And this time around there’s every indication it’s going to be there for a while, with everyone from the President of the United States to Bob Costas weighing in.

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A Lawyer And A Marketing Guy Walk Into A Bar…To Discuss A Trademark.

By: Brian J. Meli

It sounds like the setup to a bad punchline. But with the benefit of a former career in content creation in the advertising industry, and a current career in content protection in the legal one, it could be the title of my future memoir.

iStock_000022620865_ExtraSmallThe fact is the marketing executive has always dreaded the call to/from the legal department, because it represents the demise of all that’s new, exciting and creative (i.e. everything that makes their job moderately interesting). As one former colleague put it, the advertising lawyer is the “No-Man,” named not so endearingly after his favorite word in the english language, as in “no, you can’t run that.” As far as your average brand manager or account director is concerned, a lawyer wouldn’t know a good creative concept if it walked up to him, introduced itself and then tried to strangle him with his Ferragamo necktie.

The lawyer meanwhile regards the marketing camp as a bunch of foolish risk-takers, naive to the unintended consequences of running a campaign without proper review. So who is right? Well, the fact is neither one would be doing his job very well if he wasn’t thinking along these lines. One of them gets paid to define the limits; the other to push them.  The question is: is there ever a time when the two can find common ground?  The answer: perhaps. Continue reading

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