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Aw, Man, Not This Crap Again

What does it say about Rich Stevens that, even as he’s being strong-armed by cease-and-desist letters, he finds the presence of mind to sneak in a quote from The Big Lebowski?

Disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer. But it seems to me that an obviously affectionate, highly-stylized, or abstract to the nth degree design that does nothing to diminish the worth of intellectual property, and causes no confusion in the minds of a reasonable person, should not be subject to this sort of treatment.

But then again, when has something like logic ever bothered a lawyer with a C&D template? It’s a good thing that by yelling at people who reinterpret existing ideas, you can ensure that they’ll never be seen again, ever. And I’m certain that thanks to this action on the part of Lucasfilm against that dastardly villain Stevens, nobody will ever appropriate intellectual property in wrong ways, either. Nope. Especially not where they might be noticed by a rights holder.

I’m a huge fan of Rich, and I even own a “Power Droid Has a Posse” shirt, but no matter how you rationalize it, you can’t deny that those shirts trade on Lucasfilm’s intellectual property. It sucks that Rich got slapped with a cease and desist order, but considering how protective George Lucas is of his creations, I think he got off lightly.

I’ve got a bad feeling about this.

That’s not a moon…


This is sort of a tricky area: the icons (especially the tie-fi… I mean “villain’s spaceship one”), devolved to the point of near abstraction plays on a collective cultural reference, which is what Lucas Film is probably trying to stop. Once something becomes common usage, defending copyright becomes more difficult (which is why Apple is trying to get “podcast” out of the vernacular, lest they lose rights to the name “iPod”).

You could argue that Rich is playing on this shared cultural vernacular, and not specifically the Star Wars movies, but I fear it would end up like Keiron Dwyer’s “Corporate Whore”/ Starbucks thing (where basically the CBLDF stepped in and kept him from losing everything, but he still lost the rights to sell the shirts).

Maybe he should liquidate his inventory by selling some valueless service for 15 bucks, throwing in a free shirt with every purchase.

hey, folks! As far as I can tell I’m not obligated to do anything just yet. The business dept. sent a letter, I replied asking them what any of this has to do with Star Wars.

If it looks like I’m doomed, I’ll drop it. If there’s any wiggle room, I am sticking to my guns that “Chewie” is a nickname for “Jesus” and frankly, that’s a parody of religious bumper stickers. I think we still have freedom of religion as long as we love Jesus, right?

Just ordered the 3-pack just in case. I guess it takes a lawsuit to make up my mind for me.

I dunno, Gary. The Chewie shirt seems innocuous to me, but as for the other two… an affectionate, highly stylized, abstract drawing of a tie-fighter is still a drawing of a tie-fighter. I’ve gotta agree with what Orneryboy said. I like Rich’s Tie-Fighter and Droid shirts and I hope Lucasarts will let him keep selling them – but if they don’t want to, isn’t that their prerogative?

I don’t think it’s fair to demonize Lucasarts for enforcing the ownership of their own property. After all, here in the Fleen comments section we’ve always been fairly rough on people who tiptoe over OUR copyrights, haven’t we?

It sucks, but we can’t expect every big company to be as cool with this kind of thing as the Snakes on a Plane people were. Fortunately, Rich has got a ton of other great shirts, so if he can’t work this out with them it won’t be the end of the world.

You make a good point, Sam, although the only such discussion I’m recalling at the moment was this one. I think there’s a distinction to be made between claiming somebody else’s work as your own (as in the Dial case), versus homage/parody/reinterpretation (as I feel the Stevens case should be considered).

The latter, I think, is a vital part of the creative arts, especially when speaking of ideas that are so widespread as to become part of the popular vernacular. After all, Lucas himself has clearly included scenes in his movies that referenced earlier movies like The Dam Busters and The Seven Samurai. If it’s fair for Lucas to insert homage in his artistic/commercial vision, it’s fair for those that come after him, too.

Well then! If we’re all allowed to homage/parody/reinterpret the popular vernacular with impunity, then why are we all afraid to admit that’s what we’re doing? Why do shirts like PvP’s “Han Shot First” come paired with item descriptions like:

“We knew this guy once named Han Liebowitz, and one day at a bar he and this other guy got in a fight, so Han shot him! Crazy!!”

But come on. There is no “Han Liebowitz,” or “Robot Jesus,” or “Space Demon.” These aren’t original characters whose names and designs are meant to pay “homage” to Star Wars. They are the Star Wars characters, specifically, with goofy item descriptions that downplay the connection to avoid trademark violation.

Don’t get me wrong… all three shirts of these shirts are awesome. Great ideas, well executed by both creators. As a t-shirt-wearing nerd I am glad these shirts exist. But they’re not an “homage” to anything. They’re Star Wars shirts. “Han Shot First” is a joke about Han Solo. The Space Demon is a Tie-Fighter in Rich’s art style. That is the entire appeal of the shirts!

I file this under the same category as watching old 80s cartoons on You Tube. Is it awesome? Yes. Is it hurting anyone? No. Is it still technically copyright violation? You bet. And if LucasArts wants to be anal about it and ruin all the fun, they should be allowed to, even if we don’t like it.

For the record, nothing I just said has anything to do with my opinons of Scott and Rich, who are both incredible cartoonists, or George Lucas, who is a talentless, souless hack. I don’t have any moral problem with the shirts whatsoever, I’m just interested in debating whether or not they technically violate copyright law.

Copyright law and trademarking are there to keep people from ripping off others’ work and thereby making the original work useless and unprofitable by the original creator. Rich is not even making a scratch on Lucas’ empire of wealth by making these shirts. Lucas probably doesn’t even know it is happening and the legal department is doing what it was intended to do, i.e., making others’ lives less fun. People are still going to be suckered into buying the next version of Star Wars no matter what is taken out or put into it and they also want merchandise that reference how much they enjoy Star Wars. Lucas provides the ‘original’ content that people still spend enormous amounts of money on and they will spend a little bit of that money on anything related to that franchise. I guess the Star Wars legal dept is just trying to make sure that they are the only ones that can make money off of the Star Wars culture regardless of how miniscully Rich is actually harming George Lucas’ income. They are probably mainly pissed off that they didn’t corner the pixelated Star Wars market in the first place and now the only way to recoup is to crush Rich’s artistic reinterpretation of some old movies that are fun because of their hokey-ness.

I gotta agree with Sam. That’s Lucas’ shit Rich is stepping on. Lucas inc. is in the right in this case.

If it were me, I’d just drop them and look fondly back upon the free ride I had. It’s not like Rich can’t make new shirts, right?

Sam, you’re absolutely right — we should be up-front about what we’re doing instead of dancing around this issue. I hadn’t thought of it in those terms, and I’m glad you made the point.

As for whether or not Lucas* are technically right, that’s for lawyers to decide (after all, it’s not unheard of for parties to make a claim that they’re not entirely entitled to).

I’m glad this discussion was had; I think that all of us may agree that laws regarding copyright and trademark are too skewed to large rights holders (ever seen how many shirt designs large retailers steal from small-time creators?) and possibly in need of general revision.

A’course, revise the laws and there’s no promise that we get something better next time.

I’m all in favor of Rich not getting sued, but I have to agree that Lucasfilm is well within their rights to do this.

These shirts ARE cashing in on other people’s properties. Are they part of our cultural vernacular? Yes. Does that mean they are Lucas doesn’t own them? No. It’d be the same deal if R made a pixel Mickey Mouse symbol. You can call it a style or an abstraction all you want, but that doesn’t negate the fact that it’s clearly derived from someone else’s work.

Furthermore, the bigger issue here is about confusion over rights. Lucasfilm doesn’t want people to think anyone but them is a licensed seller of Star Wars merch for obvious reason – it’s money out of their pockets and a dilution of the value of their property.

I am a regular reader and enjoyer of Diesel Sweeties, but I’m not personally in favor of what is essentially profitting from someone else’s idea. And besides, wouldn’t you rather have a shirt that had something to do with the comic itself?

The fact of the matter is that Lucas Arts is notorious for coming down hard on everyone who tries to parody their stuff. As creators ourselves, we have to respect that. As far as I know, Chewie and Artoo are actually-factually Trademarked characters. No matter how much you stylize them, you are still selling the idea of the characters, and that’s what trademark protects against.

But the bottom line, I think, is pick your battles. Rich has a slew of other great merchandise and Lucas isn’t asking for reparations or anything, they’re just asking him to stop. Sure, he could skirt around excuses of whether or not it has anything to do with Star Wars, but why even bother? If I were in his spot, I would be doing anything I could to distance myself from Lucas’ team of high-powered lawyers.

I just really don’t think this is a case of “I’m the poor artist getting picked on by this big company.” but more importantly, we ARE creators. We should know better and have respect for other creators.

I’m familiar with the nickname “Chewie” but the first thing that still pops into my head is Star Wars. I think you’d have a hard time making that fly in court (no matter how sincere your explaination is).

[…] You can check out Stevens’ defense at his home page and the reaction and discussion from a handful of Fleeners help tell the story thus far. The big story here is not that one webcomic creator said to another, “Hey, stop using my stuff, or… or I’ll use yours!” No, this is George Lucas. True, the bulky, suavely-coifed rapist of childhoods probably doesn’t know anything about this; most likely he’s encased in another oblivious bubble as he prepares to ruin yet another of his tried-and-true franchises with Indiana Jones 4. […]

It could be debated for ages whether or not the shirts are infringments, but the reality of the matter is even if they aren’t, it doesn’t stop Lucas from pushing the matter, and it’d cost Rich a ton in legal fees to fight it in court. It COULD be the case that they’re expecting Rich to back down with a fight and don’t REALLY care, but I’m not sure he’s in a position to risk it.

Unfortunately I’ve had to think about this a lot in the last 2 years so that’s why I’ve made the conscious decision not to become as popular as Rich Stevens.

(err, first paragraph: back down without a fight)

[…] Actually, I suspect that Stevens might well be on the wrong end of the law, given that two of the contested shirts do in fact feature Lucasfilm creations, while his defense of the third (”Chewie is My Co-Pilot”) would be a lot easier to swallow if it wasn’t such an obvious swipe of the Empire Strikes Back logo. Moreover, given how much money the Star Wars franchise is worth, I’d be awfully surprised if the TIE fighter, R2D2 and “Chewie” weren’t all trademarked to Hell and back. Finally, Stevens is selling these for profit, which is the exact point at which Kieron Dwyer’s case hit the wall — the phrase “trademark dilution” has a disturbing tendency to beat First Amendment protections in court cases, as I understand it. (In short, I think that Gary Tyrrell is wrong on this one in just about every respect.) It goes without saying that I’m not a lawyer, but I strongly suspect that Stevens is pretty much screwed if he decides to fight this one. Let go of your feelings, Clango… […]

It’s true that these companies have to denfend their icons from becoming vernacular lest they loose the rights to them. Whatever law causes that is the reason they have to go after people who are probably helping them by keeping up hype for their IP. The conclusion I draw from this situation it that copyright law is broken, and needs to be fixed so that this situation where creators have to attack fans becomes unneccessary.


Wouldn’t be the first time.

Man, I love these shirts so much, I ordered another 3-pack (I already own a set) for when the first 3 wear out. Gonna put ’em in the back of the closet for that fateful day. Thanks for some great shirts Rich, hope this turns out well!

This isn’t even a border case. If you know anything about trademark law, it’s obvious he’s on the wrong side of it. Here’s a copy of the message I sent to Rich in response to his open request for real-world advice:

Stop insulting people’s intelligence. Claiming that the R2 image is a “trash can” and that the Chewie shirt isn’t deliberately designed to look like a Star Wars reference, is going to be about as successful for you as walking into a meeting with them and talking to them very slowly using words of one syllable and patting them on the head like drooling retards, while you smirk and wink at your friends. Claiming the TIE fighter was supposed to be a Space Invaders image might have worked, except for Exhibits A and B which make it obvious that it’s not. Now, whatever you might think of their ethics and value to society (and you might even be right) most lawyers are not actual retards. You’re not fooling them. You know that you’re riffing on Star Wars, your customers know you’re riffing on Star Wars, and Lucasfilms’ lawyers know you’re riffing on Star Wars. And so will the judge. Are you familiar with the term “contempt of court”? You seem to be soaking in it.

As for the “fair use” defense, you’re not even close. Fair Use under copyright law allows you to quote a sample of a larger work for the purpose of scholarly commentary. This ain’t that. Under trademark law, it allows you to reproduce others’ trademarks for the sake of making a product comparison, and requires you to explicitly acknowledge their trademarks. You aren’t doing that, either. You’re making gag Star Wars t-shirts. Putting someone else’s images on a product in order to sell it for profit is pretty much a cut-and-dried no-no.

What you’re doing is pretty harmless, to be sure. You’re not stealing food from the mouths of George Lucas’ children or anything. But trademark law requires trademark holders to be brutal ogres, willing to steal the food from the mouths’ of others’ children if they find someone infringing those trademarks. If they don’t, the trademarks become invalid, and it’ll become difficult for them to go after producers of bootleg merchandise and so forth. It may not be fair, but it’s how the law is written. And it’s still a far cry from being the end of a “free” country; you can still satirize and parody things. You just have to do it as actual satire and parody, not as gag t-shirts sold for profit.

You had some clever ideas, they were funny, and you ran with them. Good prank. Very punk-rock; you have my respect. But your prank just got caught. So stop trying to weasel your way out of it by pretending to not be nearly as clever as you obviously are, and insulting the intelligence of the folks who caught you. You can’t win this for the simple reason that you did the prank. So be a mensch, admit it, and… cease and desist.

We seem to have gotten to the point where we’re repeating ourselves. I think that Sam put it best above when he said that his only concern is whether or not the shirts “technically violate copyright law”. My reading of the 2 Live Crew case says that they don’t, but I’m not a lawyer. Chances are, neither are you.

So I’m going to ask that unless:

a) You are a lawyer (please provide your area of specialization and which bar you are admitted before);
b) You can cite relevant case law (WestLaw or equivalent)

that you refrain from declaring who is correct in this case. Feel free to discuss the philosophical/artistic implications, but findings of fact are a matter for the professionals.

What you’re doing is pretty harmless, to be sure… But trademark law requires trademark holders to be brutal ogres

Right, so obviously trademark law is the problem, and it needs to be altered so that people are not punished for doing harmless things.

I think instead of sending a cease and desist letter, Lucasfilm should make t-shirts with non-pixelated DS characters, but not mention them by name and then claim to be making parody.

To add insult to injury, they could refer to a shirt of Indy Rock Pete as “The Space Demon Shirt.”

“I think instead of sending a cease and desist letter, Lucasfilm should make t-shirts with non-pixelated DS characters, but not mention them by name and then claim to be making parody.”

Man, if that was their strategy, I’d be the first to order one. (plus my sales would probably go UP)

I’m beginning to think I’d rather just say, “screw iT” and invest all my hypothetical court time in making a pile of new shirts this month. It’s not like I don’t have a dozen of them designed and in a queue, just waiting for shelf space in my office.

Special note to Todd: you have great opinions and lots of helpful facts, but you come off sounding really condescending! I understand you’re trying to help, but a lot of other people in life might not. That’s a lesson I learned the hard way in college.

[…] while back, another member of Dumbrella had a similar situation – they had a number of t-shirts that featured various references to Star Wars. Lucas and company […]

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