Star Wars Strikes Back

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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The Star Wars franchise is incredibly valuable. The total box office for the nine Star Wars movies totals over $7 billion.

If that sounds like a lot, it’s just the tip of the iceberg: revenues from toys and merchandise is over $17 billion. The Disney Store alone lists 406 different Star Wars item — more products are available from licensees such as Lego and Hasbro.

This explains why Lucasfilm — and now Disney — have been very aggressive in going after people deemed to be infringing the intellectual property rights related to the franchise.

Wins

Lucasfilm collects royalties for every “Droid” phone sold by Verizon.

Lucasfilm didn’t register the “droid” trademark until 2009, by which time Verizon was already selling the “Droid” line of phones. Lucasfilm sued Verizon, and Verizon settled for an undisclosed (but presumably fairly large) amount of money.

One bit of irony: Lucasfilm is now owned by Disney. When Disney acquired Pixar, Steve Jobs, the creator of the iPhone, became the largest shareholder in Disney. So now Steve Jobs’ estate makes money every time a rival “Droid” phone is sold.

Losses

Lucasfilm’s losses are in some ways more interesting than its wins. They also show that Lucasfilm’s lawyers don’t have much of a sense of humor.

Remember how back in the 1980s the US was working on a missile defense program? Everyone, of course, called it “Star Wars.” George Lucas didn’t like that, so he sued a retired general whose company was using the term “Star Wars” for the Strategic Defense Initiative.

Lucas lost. The court said it “obviously cannot regulate the type of descriptive, non-trade use involved here without becoming the monitor of the spoken or written English language.”

And then there’s the case of Starballz, an animated, parody porn film.

One of the “fair uses” of copyrighted materials is parody. If Lucasfilm’s lawyers had even a trace of a sense of humor they would have recognized that a film with characters sporting “anatomically correct” white helmets spouting lines such as “okay, spermtroopers…be ready to engage…full penetration…” as parody.

Pending

There are a number of cases that haven’t been decided yet. One involved the Empire Brewing Company, which is producing a beer called “Strikes Bock.”

“Empire Strikes Bock” — get it?

The company is named after its famous building; “bock” is a traditional German lager. In a cute video, the owner of the company explains they are all big Star Wars fans, and his use is clearly a parody, which he says is the greatest form of flattery.

Fan Fiction

The studios that own the major franchises have generally ignored (or even encouraged) fan fiction as harmless. However, that may be changing.

Recently, Paramount and CBS filed a lawsuit against producers of a fan Star Trek movie. This is no back yard production — the fan film’s crowdfunding campaigns have raised more than $1 million and the producers intend to use a professional crew.

Takeaways

Your brand might not be as valuable as Star Wars, but it’s important to stop others from using your trademark without your permission.


(Photo Credit: “Star Wars Episode 1” by Eva Rinaldi is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.)

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