Lucasfilm Combats Star Wars Infringements

Star Wars is with us as much today as it was 22 years ago, when the first film of the series was released. In fact, it has been around so long that it seems an inherent part of popular culture, like Huckleberry Finn---in the public domain, free for anyone to use as they wish. George Lucas, creator of the blockbuster film and its two sequels, has long looked the other way regarding possible copyright infringements. Fanzines, fantasy periodicals, and filmed spoofs have elaborated on Star Wars characters and story lines for two decades without fear.

A thriving cult---inflamed by the release of new, reworked versions of the first trilogy two years ago---kept the series going during the extended drought leading to the appearance of the long-promised and soon-to-be-released "prequel," Star Wars: Episode 1---The Phantom Menace, now scheduled to open on May 19. During the interim between films, the Internet exploded with hundreds of sites put up by Star Wars fans, many of whom were children when the film first appeared.

With the next installment's theatrical debut rapidly approaching---and, with it, hundreds of millions of dollars from licensing agreements---Lucasfilm Ltd. has begun cracking down on copyright infringements. The film company has filed suit against a Time Warner publishing unit, Little Brown & Co., seeking to suppress publication of Ted Edwards' The Unauthorized Star Wars Compendium.

The book went out to bookstores in January, bearing disclaimers on the front and rear covers clearly stating that it is neither affiliated with nor approved by Lucasfilm. Bertram Fields, Lucasfilm's attorney, calls the disclaimers inadequate, and says the word "unauthorized" doesn't mean a thing. He maintains that the book competes with "substantially similar" authorized books.

"Little Brown's chief defense," writes the Wall Street Journal's Bruce Orwall and John Lippman, "is likely to be the 'fair use' doctrine that permits the publication and use of copyrighted material in the public domain." The publisher says it has complied completely with legal guidelines.

Lucasfilm claims that it won't interfere with the habit of fans appropriating Star Wars lore and iconography for their own enjoyment. "Profits are the big test," Fields explains. "Technically, the websites might be violations and probably are, but we're not going to go around policing fans."

Nonetheless, Lucasfilm executives recently put some pressure on, a well-known Star Wars site, asking it to delete an audio clip from the new film. Scott Chitwood, who helps run the site, says Lucasfilm told him to remove the sound bite because the company "doesn't want people to have preconceived notions about the film or its characters based on one unauthorized snippet." Chitwood did as requested, saying the execs were "friendly but firm," an indication that a two-decades-old tradition of free rein among Star Wars fans might be about to end. A trailer for The Phantom Menace set an Internet record with 3.5 million downloads during its first five days, beginning March 11.