Take this article from Fast Company, for example, entitled This Copyright-Flaunting Music Video Imagines “Star Wars” with Really Long Lightsabers. The article addresses a video posted on YouTube by the Auralnauts that edits a scene from Return of the Jedi. If you’ve seen the movie, you surely remember the scene. It’s where where Jabba the Hutt’s thugs are about the feed Luke, Han, and Chewbacca to the Sarlacc Pit, when, at the last moment, Luke turns the tables on the bad guys and leads a daring rescue and escape. The Auralnauts — who are Craven Moorhaus and Zak Koonce — edit the scene in numerous ways, including extending Luke’s lightsaber blade to cut across the entire screen, adding hilarious and ridiculous music, and in general making fun of some of the scene’s silliest parts. Clearly, the video is designed to lovingly mock this iconic moment from the Star Wars series, and it’s great.
Putting the aesthetic quality of the video aside, the Fast Company article makes some questionable statements about how copyright applies to it. The title alone suggests that the Auralnauts violated Lucasfilm/Disney’s copyright in creating this work. It then goes on to say that “this particular digital manipulation would appear to violate all sorts of copyrights” without clarifying why the author thinks this is the case. Indeed, it is a pretty serious statement to make without any reasoning. Copyright infringement can carry large civil penalties and even (potentially, tho unlikely) criminal charges. And after reading this article, someone who doesn’t know any better might assume the video is a clear instance of infringement and move on. After all, it comes from a reputable source like Fast Company; surely the author wouldn’t pass judgement on something if it wasn’t true, right?
Well, as it turns out, these statements are at least misleading and at worst completely false. Consider four thoughts. First, the author writes that this scene may violate “all sorts of copyrights”? Really? If so, how many? Which ones? Who owns them? Without clarification, I’m pretty sure the author of the article wrote this line either because they don’t know any better, they assume there are multiple rights being infringed but didn’t actually look into it, or they just want to make the article seem more important than it actually is.
Second, what about fair use? It took me about 10 seconds to think of a plausible — and I think pretty strong — fair use argument in support of Auralnauts’s video. It’s clearly transformative in many ways; it is a parody that comments on the original; it only uses a little bit of Return of the Jedi — a couple minutes out of a 136 minute long movie; and I don’t think it’s really harms the market for the original. Yet the author of the article doesn’t even mention fair use. This is a noteworthy oversight.
Third, if this video violates Lucasfilm/Disney’s IP rights, why is it still online? Major rights holders like Lucasfilm are normally very active about removing instances of copyright infringement from YouTube. If the company had a problem with the video, it would almost certainly try to get the video taken down. Yet it’s still there. This suggests either Lucasfilm doesn’t believe this is copyright infringement or doesn’t think the video is a serious enough threat to its IP rights to have it removed.
Fourth, it is possible that the Auralnauts licensed the right to use this clip from Lucasfilm. I doubt that’s the case, but the truth is, we don’t know. And it is careless of the Fast Company author to assume otherwise, without at least acknowledging this assumption.
Ultimately, the sort of statement made in this article frustrates me because it gives people a false perception that any use of a copyrighted work is automatically infringement. That is simply false; in fact, copyright has numerous exceptions that permit various types of uses. Fair use is one of them, but there are several others. Indeed, the purpose of copyright itself is to drive forward our culture, and it allows for some uses of copyrighted works to support this aim. And I’d argue this video firmly fits with this purpose.
All this is to say, be careful about what you read online about copyright. If something doesn’t seem true, don’t trust it (including this post!) Look deeper into the issue, and if you have a question, ask your friendly, neighborhood Copyright Librarian. We’re always happy to help.