As a huge Star Wars fan, I was super excited when I saw this on YouTube:
That’s right, Star Wars: The Animated Movie. Hand-drawn by Jeronimus Dekker with “a monk’s sense of concentrating and dedication”, this short film is a 6-minute summation of the first Star Wars movie, A New Hope. And it’s amazing. Each frame drips with creativity, skill, and an obvious affection for the source material.
Needless to say, I love it.
However, since I work in Copyright, my first thought after watching the video was about fair use. It seems to me this film presents an interesting fair use example because it definitely should be fair use, but it isn’t certainly protected by the law.
As you may know, our fair use statute doesn’t give us a list of instances when it’s ok to copy another person’s work. Instead, it tells us to look at 4 different factors, weigh the arguments for and against fair use, and decide on balance whether it’s ok to copy something or not. The upside of this statute is that it’s very flexible and doesn’t limit fair use to specific types of copies. The downside, however, is that this balancing test is often quite unclear, even to experts, and it can be hard to decide with 100% certainty when something is fair use. In turn, this can chill the creation of new works that use other works at all because of the fear of infringement.
It should be obvious why this is important for something like Dekker’s video. While I’d argue that his work is exactly the type of thing that fair use should protect, there are definitely arguments against fair use, here. And it’s not hard to imagine Dekker never creating a work like this because he was worried about Lucasfilm’s reaction.
To be clear, I don’t think Lucasfilm is likely to sue Dekker or have this video removed from YouTube. Indeed, since it’s still there, it seems likely that Lucasfilm is ok with the work. Instead, what I’m saying is this sort of work definitely should be fair use, and we shouldn’t have to worry about it.
This situation reminds me of my favorite Star Wars fan creation — Star Wars: Uncut. In 2010 Casey Pugh set out on an ambitious art project. He divided A New Hope into 473 fifteen second pieces, and asked people on the internet to take a piece and remake it however they wanted to. This could be as animation, papercraft, live re-creation, sock puppets — whatever. It was entirely up to the creator. He then took all the pieces and reassembled them into a new version of A New Hope.
The result is a fascinating piece of art that can only exist thanks both to modern technology and the power of our fair use statute. However, while it strikes me that this work has a stronger fair use claim than The Animated Movie, it’s still not a slam dunk for Pugh. Indeed, our fair use statute guarantees that there are always arguments against fair use, even in the best cases.
Thankfully, Lucasfilm embraced Pugh’s work, and even actively supported the creation of its sequel, The Empire Strikes Back: Uncut. Nevertheless, it’s not hard to imagine a different copyright holder being less friendly to a work like this and blocking its creation/distribution.
Ultimately, all I’m saying here is that I wish the law more clearly supported fan creations like these because they are tremendously creative, original works, and I think the world is better with them in it. Indeed, the purpose of copyright is to encourage creators to make works and advance our culture, and this this is exactly what works like Star War: The Animated Movie, Star Wars: Uncut, and The Empire Strikes Back: Uncut all do.