“I’ve got a bad feeling about this…”
Today it was announced that Disney is buying Lucas Arts for $4.05 billion, which transfers all Star Wars rights to Disney. The move will fortify the Disney/Stars Wars brand through copyright, and it will undoubtedly result in several more abominable Star Wars movie sequels.
Disney has a history of buying iconic brands and locking up the copyright. The company acquired Marvel back in 2009, and since then Disney has released an increasing number of Marvel movies and merchandise. Between the purchase and 2015, there are going to be at least 17 major Marvel movies, which is almost as many as the entire first decade of the millennium, one of the most recent movies grossing $1.5 billion worldwide, and many of which are remakes or sequels.
Disney’s agressive elaboration of the Marvel brand will likely fortify its hold on the copyrights for generations to come. Although Marvel started creating comics in 1939, Disney’s reworking of the story lines and character profiles will allow them to claim copyright for even longer under current copyright law to some extent if they are able to prove unique derivative work. To put it simply, as long as a corporation continues to develop and recreate its owned copyright, it can claim ownership to a unique adaptation of that work. No wonder we have seen an influx of comic book movies in the past decade (see chapter 17 of Tim Wu’s “The Master Switch”). Disney/Marvel need to renew a piece of that copyright claim before it runs out.
George Lucas likes this, and he has bought into the idea of preserving the Star Wars image as much as possible. For him, it’s not about making more money out of Star Wars (he’s already made enough for several lifetimes). It’s about making sure Star Wars remains true to its origins: George Lucas and the image of George Lucas. Check out his interview for his reasoning for selling the company to Disney (especially 2:27):
He says, “I’m doing this so the films will have a longer life. More fans and people can enjoy them in the future.” Kathleen Kennedy, the Co-Chariman of Lucas Film, adds, “The main thing is to protect these characters and to make sure that they continue to live in the way [Lucas] created them.”
In doing so, they will prevent the remix of Star Wars for at least the next hundred years (probably more). Disney has already announced that it will be making three new Star Wars movies in the next several years, and it plans to release more after that, one every “2 or 3 years”. As Joe Mullin from arstechnica.com concludes, we can expect many more stories and characters that will be protected via copyright, thus renewing the copyright into the unforeseeable future.
The copyright for the Star Wars franchise is already secure beyond the lifespan of its creator, George Lucas. Star Wars was released in 1977, which give Lucas Arts control until 2072, 95 years after its creation. This is due to the increased length of the copyright term law over the past couple hundred years. Check out the change in this graph:
This is plenty incentive for an artist to create great work. But this isn’t about artists, it’s about the institutions that claim the copyright (e.g. Lucas Arts, Disney), and their capacity to use these rights to generate more ‘culture’. Indeed, the lobbying of corporations for stricter copyright law has paid off (at least for the corporations), and ironically, Disney has been a major proponent of longer copyright terms, even though its entire collection of iconic movies (Snow White, Alice In Wonderland, etc.) are based on works that had been out of copyright when Disney was just starting out. Now Disney’s efforts have made it impossible for anyone in the next several generations to do the same with its own work.
For a brief history of copyright, check out the video below. Funny enough, it is explained through the eyes of the Star Wars copyright, and Disney is used as a case study for how institutions are milking the copyright system. Props to C. G. P. Grey for creating this video over a year before the Lucas Arts purchase:
Lucas Arts has fiercely defended its claim to Star Wars, usually successfully (but not always). When the company released some online tools in 2007 to help fans remix Star Wars content, copyright activist Lawrence Lessig called the move “digital sharecropping”, making reference to the fact that none of the remixers actually had any right to any of their own work.
Is this good for culture overall? Well, if the Star Wars prequel trilogy and the Marvel revival work as a predictor, we are in for a sad Star Wars future.
Editor’s note: In response to article comments, the author would like to clarify that the article’s main concern rests in derivative works. For this, a number of edits were made post-publish. Reference to a WIPO article was removed, as it was noted as off target and confusing. In it’s place, the concept of derivative works were more clearly referenced and cited, and their capacity to be copyrighted. Tim Wu’s “The Master Switch” was referenced for the phenomenon of increased elaboration of current copyrighted brands. Also, it was originally stated that ClubJade.net created the copyright video featured above, but they pointed out that it was in fact C. G. P. Grey.