Fans.starwars.con

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Title: fans.starwars.con
Creator: Elizabeth Durnak
Date(s): March 12, 2000
Medium: online
Fandom: Star Wars
Topic: copyright, fanworks, ownership
External Links: Fans.starwars.con, Archived version
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fans.starwars.con is an editorial by Elizabeth Durnak at Echo Station, a Star Wars fansite.

This editorial may also have the unofficial title "Beware of Companies Bearing Gifts," which is the title encoded in the header info of the page's html. The essay discusses the recent offer of Lucasfilm's to give fans free webspace in return for turning over intellectual rights to their fanworks posted on them.

Prompted a Fan Campaign, a Boycott, and a Petition

A Rebuttal Article

Related Star Wars Essays of the Time

The years 1999 and 2000 were a time of a lot of discussion about Star Wars fandom and profit.

Excerpts

Starwars.com's new Fan Homepages offer sounds good on the surface, but it may be a dangerous bid to wrest intellectual property rights on "derivative works" away from fans.

I was stunned and shocked to learn that Starwars.com will now be offering fans web space under the subdomain fan.starwars.com. It's stunning because for perhaps the first time a major creative media company is offering its fans space on the web (a LOT of space -- 16 megabytes per account, and unlimited accounts per user are allowed) and an official URL (fan.starwars.com) plus dynamic content from their own official site. It's shocking because once you accept their enticing offer they can tell you exactly what you can and cannot do on your website. Furthermore they own your content -- they'd rather you didn't create Star Wars-related graphics, wallpapers, fan art, fan fiction and so forth, but if you do, it belongs to them in perpetuity, under the terms of service. "To encourage the on-going excitement, creativity and interaction of our dedicated fans in the online Star Wars community, Lucas Online is pleased to offer for the first time an official home for fans to celebrate their love of Star Wars on the world wide web," enthuses the Official Site's main page. The service is being managed by Homestead, a company that offers free homepages directly and also enables sites like Starwars.com to offer such services. But the real story is a lot uglier, and has much less to do with the encouragement of creativity than its discouragement -- there's nothing innocent about Lucasfilm's offer of web space to fans.

I think sometimes that in some ways media companies like Lucasfilm wish their fans wouldn't care so much. The outpouring of love and fierce devotion from online fans threatens to corrode their trademarks and infringe their copyrights. There is a threat, which exists primarily in their lawyers' heads, that the thousands of websites that refer to those trademarks will dilute them. In reality, most (including most at Lucasfilm) agree that the proliferation of fan activity enhances the popularity and marketability of the Star Wars franchise -- especially because the sort of true, deeply-engaged fans who create and visit fan websites are prime consumers of Star Wars merchandise. But there is a more real threat that if Lucasfilm does not defend their ownership of their trademarks, they stand to lose them to the public domain.

That's where this new web space thing starts making a lot of sense. If they can get a sizeable number of online fans to sign on (lured by what is, on the surface, one of the most attractive offers of free web space I've ever seen), they can ensure that those people all more or less follow Lucasfilm's rules for how they would like fans to use their trademarked and copyrighted properties. Makes their task of policing the web that much easier.
Lucasfilm doesn't hate fans, and they don't hate fan websites. They can indeed see how they benefit from the free publicity they represent -- and who doesn't like being adored? This move underscores that as much as anything. But they're also scared, and that makes them hurt the people who love them.

The trouble is that perhaps the fans have a moral right to use Star Wars-related names and creative concepts at will because Star Wars is such a deeply ingrained part of our culture. The very success and ubiquity of the franchise is what makes it hover (dangerously?) close to the border of being something no longer privately-owned, but public cultural property. It has been observed by many writers that Star Wars (based purposely on the recurring themes of mythology by creator George Lucas) and other popular media creations take the place in modern America that culture myths like those of the Greeks or Native Americans did for earlier peoples. Holding modern myths hostage by way of corporate legal wrangling seems somehow contrary to nature.

Don't get me wrong, I respect George Lucas and his creation, and his legal right to all he produces, despite the dilemma. As some fan is always bound to point out whenever there's kvetching about Lucas and his deeds, without George there would be no Star Wars. He personally built this remarkable empire and has remained the central creative and administrative figure. He funds his own movies. What other movie franchise revolves so pivotally around one man's influence? He is the myth-builder.
True fandom is rarely passive -- it can be intensely participatory. Far from being mere consumers of media, fans themselves can gain fame and respect for their activities. They too can be builders. They can possess that which they worship, and alter it to suit their concept of what it should be. In participatory fandom, there are no golden calves, only live ones -- trainable, dynamic, mortal. Fans critique media mercilessly, write their own stories, create their own art, play their own games, build their own communities. They excise that which they dislike (see the Qui-Gon Jinn Council of Denial, which refuses to acknowledge that character's death), they insert new major characters (see any of dozens or hundreds of stories with a "Qui-Gon's first Padawan" character, almost always female), they add character traits (see the Master_Apprentice fanfic archive, with well over a thousand stories about Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan as gay lovers), they cast themselves in the story (see "Mary Sue" fanfic), and they play with the basic rules in novel ways to create "alternate universe" works (see the Sith Academy). Fanfic authors are infinitely creative in finding new ways to twist and change the worlds they work in. They become the authors of new yet very familiar worlds.

Reactions and Reviews

In an insightful essay, Durack argues that fans paying for culture and supporting entertainment should be allowed leeway in the use of copyrighted and trademarked properties.

The notion of fan "rights" is a growing political instinct online, where people feel passionately about their culture, from ground-breaking representational experiences like Quake, Doom, Ultima and The Sims to followers of Star Trek, South Park, The Simpsons, and Star Wars. These games, movies and television programs transcend mere entertainment; they are an integral part of people's cultural experiences the same way music is. Durack's essay reflects the growing tension between "fans" and the companies that want to take their money -- but otherwise keep them at arm's length.

Durack's point of view is radical. It isn't widely held in political and media circles -- especially not in Washington. [1]

References

  1. In a Virtual World, Who Owns Ideas?