Star Wars, George Lucas, and How Copyright Term Limits Can Affect The Death of The Author


May is an important month for Star Wars fans. Episode IV, A New Hope premiered on May 25, 1977, ushering in the age of the summer blockbuster. This past Sunday was May 4th, affectionately known by fans as Star Wars Day basically so they can all walk around saying "May the Fourth be with you" with impunity. This year, May has taken on extra significance; just last week, Disney released a picture of the cast for the new Star Wars film, Episode VII to be directed by J.J. Abrams and starring a bunch of exciting young actors like Oscar Isaac, John Boyega, and Lupita Nyong'o. It will also feature the original trilogy cast members, including notorious grump, Harrison Ford.

It's all very exciting and even though I've never been a big Star Wars fan, I've been thinking a lot lately about poor old George Lucas. His reputation never recovered from the terrible prequel trilogy and the much hated "Special Editions" of the original films. I have to believe it was the fierce and unrelenting backlash that finally convinced him to sell Lucasfilm to Disney. While he is publicly staying involved with the new films as an elder statesman, it's pretty clear he's washed his hands of the whole thing. And why not? The fan community all but called for his head on a pike after Lucas made those changes to the original films, often with terrible CGI, and some of which altered the thematic tenor of the story (i.e. making Greedo shoot first).

Of course, Lucas had the right to do anything he wanted to those films, including turning Boba Fett into a New Zealander for some reason. The copyrights, and all rights of revision, were his. As far as the law is concerned, that's all that matters. The fans, on the other hand, saw Star Wars as theirs, and many of them used ugly phrases like "George Lucas raped my childhood" to illustrate their feelings on the matter. But I think beneath all that unhinged terror, there's a legitimate argument to be made that after a work is published to the world, the work is no longer the sole property of the artist. And while that concept is not codified in our laws, maybe it should be.

I recently wrote a blog post stating that indefinite copyrights may not be such a bad thing. My argument echoed that of George R.R. Martin, who believes that the creator and his or her heirs are the best people to maintain the integrity of the work over time. I think he has a point... a point that is unfortunately undercut by creators like Lucas who monkey around with their works after they've been released. So how do you codify it? Well, shortening copyright terms would be one way to go. [Yes, that old chestnut. You didn't think I was done harping on it, did you?]

Right now, individual copyrights last for life of the author plus 70 years, resulting in upwards of 170 years of protection. What message does that much protection send? That the copyright owner has complete control over his work for several generations, regardless of the effects of the work on the culture at large. By shortening copyright terms to something like a flat 75 years, Congress would send a very public message to artists and creators that after a certain period of time, the art no longer belongs solely to them; it belongs to the people. And lest you call me a socialist, remember that progress for the betterment of society was one of the original purposes behind copyright protection. While Lucas had the legal right to change his films, he made those changes without much regard for the cultural impact those movies had. The way our copyright law is written today, he shouldn't have to. But the law can't exist in a vaccuum, separated neatly from the realities of life. Star Wars had an immense impact on countless people; you can't just ignore that. Remember that Lucas is hardly the first franchise creator whose ownership interest was outstripped by the fanbase. J.R.R. Tolkien rewrote huge portions of The Hobbit long after it had been published so it would better fit in with the darker tone of Lord of the Rings. His publisher had to step in and prevent him from rewriting it entirely, afraid that The Hobbit's fanbase would be turned off by changes to the upbeat tale.

I'm a strong believer in the death of the author, and I think that altering the length of copyright ownership is a logical extension of that. But if I'm being honest, I'm not as sure as I once was on the merits of shortening copyrights. For every George R.R. Martin who convinces me that creators should have indefinite control of their work, there's a George Lucas who clearly demonstrates that taking the work away from the author may actually protect the art. Luckily, I have this space where I can exercise those uncertainties. What do you guys think?

Greg Kanaan

The [Legal] Artist, Boston, MA, USA