The Browncoats, a hardcore sci-fi subculture that loves Joss Whedon’s Firefly and Serenity to an incredible (and, if you think hardcore “fandom”* is as creepy as I do, frightening) degree, usually feel like the underdogs. Heck, their name comes from a Confederate States analogue in Whedon’s western meets Star Wars mythology. And to be fair, they have a good reason to feel like that – their show was cancelled quickly and their movie never caught on with the pop culture. And now Universal, who owns the intellectual property rights to all things Serenity-related, is coming down on them with lawyers.
In a lot of ways I see this situation as yet another chapter in the fans vs the studios saga, one which is only going to get worse and worse as time goes on. The problem comes from a very integral part of what makes fandom tick: a feeling of ownership over a property.
The current situation has a CafePress store, which sold goods “inspired by” Serenity (I didn’t see the store before it was taken down, so I don’t know to what extent the items were just inspired by or were using logos, images, etc from), getting a harshly worded cease and desist letter from some lawyers laboring deep inside the dungeons beneath the Psycho house on the Universal back lot (you would think they were living inside the Black Tower itself, but even the evil corporate overlords don’t want lawyers around). The Browncoat world, which, when there isn’t a convention going on seems to exist in cyberspace, is an uproar over this. It’s the worst of capitalism. It’s copyright run amuck. It’s the fans, who did so much work for Serenity, getting shit on by the suits.
The problem is that the Browncoats are wrong and Universal is right. This is actually one of the fans vs studio battles where the lines are pretty clear. This store, run by someone with the internet name of 11th Hour, was selling – please note emphasis on selling – items that Universal felt was in violation of their copyright. The more interesting battles are like the one that Fox had against fans of another Whedon property, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, when they started getting all pissy about websites devoted to the show. While I believe 11th Hour’s intentions were quite good – to provide cool merch to fellow fans – the actions were wrong. When you sell something that uses someone else’s copyright, you’re pirating, just as much as if you copied the Serenity DVD and sold it on the 6 train.
Many of the Browncoats, who have rallied behind 11th Hour, miss the point, and don’t see the bigger picture. Even ignoring the fact that some schlump working for Universal’s lawyers saw the site and checked it against a list of possible copyright infractions before shooting off a form e-mail and that “Universal” had very little do with this mostly automated process, how is the studio supposed to know that you’re the guy selling Serenity t-shirts with the best of intentions? I have some friends that made a pretty penny selling pirate t-shirts outside of Red Sox games; at least one of them ended up in a jail cell for it. Should he have been able to get out of jail by explaining that he’s really just a big Sox fan? Of course not – even though he was.
The reason why the Browncoats don’t get that point is because they, at heart, don’t accept that Universal owns that intellectual property. It’s theirs – they stood with it through thick and thin, they took part in street teams that scoured the internet for unsuspecting message boards upon which they could shill their franchise, they dragged friends and family to the movie again and again and everyone they knew got the Firefly DVD set for Christmas. Hell, Universal just put some money up – the Browncoats poured their souls into it. Here’s a quote from 11th Hour on the Prospero Forum: “Tis a bit of a shocker… so much of my waking life since Firefly was first broadcast has been channeled into supporting the ‘Verse every way I can. I’ve sacrificed a lot to do the work for FF/S… I did it gladly, and I know I’ve had a positive effect.” I won’t get into the comparison with evangelicals that got me into so much hot water last time, but because the Browncoats were such a big part of the marketing of the film, and because Joss Whedon and his stars have been so good about interacting with the fanbase, that line between “being involved in” and “owning” the franchise got swept away.
And when that line is gone, that’s when fandom comes head to head with the studios. It’s when people boycott whole networks because they canceled their favorite show, or when they re-edit and distribute a film to meet their own expectations… or when they send death threats to the guy who was hired to write a remake of their favorite film. In a lot of ways the people behind a franchise want the fans to be that invested – how many generations of George Lucas’ family will have money for college because a large segment of the “fat sweaty nerd” populace keeps on buying Star Wars books, no matter how artlessly the words inside the cover are arranged? That level of connection with a franchise leads to the kind of indiscriminate consumerism upon which empires are built.
Which means that the copyright holders don’t want you fucking with their empire. Someone on the Prospero Forum speculates that this could mean that Universal is about to unleash a new wave of Serenity merch. Unlikely, but I doubt that Universal has missed the lesson Paramount learned with Star Trek. The Serenity universe is most likely all done, but Universal wants to make sure that if a sudden nostalgia wave for 2005 hits and people rediscover the franchise, they have the keys to that cash register.
Is that the worst of capitalism? I don’t think so – the worst would have been to force Whedon to retool his show into a movie that was more obviously commercial and easier to sell. Is it copyright run amuck? Definitely not. This franchise may be dead, but the corpse is still warm. Copyright should be protecting this intellectual property. If you want to see someone abuse copyright, look to the Magic Kingdom – Disney’s stranglehold on characters older than some of your grandparents is insane, and completely against everything copyright should be about. After a very reasonable amount of time, the intellectual property is supposed to be turned over to the people, and I don’t think anyone could argue that the year since Serenity was released is any sort of reasonable amount of time. Hell, Universal hasn’t even gotten around to double-dipping the movie on DVD yet, and you know they’re going to (they already have a base sales expectation).
There’s a larger issue here, one that maybe deserves its own editorial, and it’s the issue of people playing inside established sandboxes. We live in a world where people spend lots and lots of time on writing fan fiction or making fan films or recreating costumes or otherwise expending their own creativity on other people’s toys instead of coming up with their own. I really don’t understand this, and I think it’s a little bit sad, like having your biggest ambition as a writer to be churning out The Destroyer novels under a pen name.** The franchises you love were created with the inspiration of other things, not out of other things. It’s the difference between using samples and being a Led Zeppelin cover band.
I’m sorry that 11th Hour got a scary cease and desist, but I’m pretty sure in the long run she’ll be OK and not a penny poorer – and maybe even the recipient of a nice message from Joss, a guy who tends to his fanbase like no other. But in the end selling items that infringe on someone else’s copyright is “wrong”*** , not spreading the message. Call me when Universal is going after the sites dedicated to loving, not selling, Serenity, and I’ll lead the charge to fuck those guys in the face.
* Fandom is just a religion whose Bible is a TV show, movie series or comic book. There’s a rigid adherence to dogmatic beliefs and an almost ritualistic display of consumerism. I also find that serious, hardcore fans define themselves not as individuals but in relationship to their fandom.
** I think this sort of thing is a perfectly respectable way to pay the bills, but if your whole goal in life is to just write shitty tie-in novels, you’re less of a writer than you are pretending to be.
*** Please note that I don’t have a real moral issue about this. Infringe away for all I care. I don’t think piracy is a moral issue at all. But in this case there is a “correct” and an “incorrect,” and it’s defined by basic legal junk. 11th Hour is coming out on the “incorrect” end.