Copyright or Copywrong

After reading my reviews of the films Shadows: A Overwatch Film and The Grey, two totally different types of fan films, do you have any interest in making a fan film of your own?  Before you rush off and start writing an elaborate script, you should take a moment to learn a little bit about the importance of Copyright and how it pertains to fan films.  

Copyright is simple, it protects an artist’s assets, and this includes but is not limited to books, movies, videos, plays, songs and photographs.  It also protects your intellectual property, meaning that if you created it, you own it. This is, of course, as long as it does not infringe on another already existing copyright.

Still with me, good.

Copyright is not to be confused with Trademarks which include logos, and brands.  The Copyright Act of 1976 is a very comprehensive document, and nobody has time to read all of that, but a little known fact is that copyright in some form has been around for a long, long time, going back as far as Elizabethan Times.

Say you are a copyright owner/holder, what are you entitled to?  First of all, you have the sole right to your work, meaning that you are free to reproduce it as well as (and fan filmmakers this is where you should start to take note) sell and distribute it.  You are also able to create new work based around or from your original work. Now if anyone infringes on your copyright, they are then liable and can be punished either by fine, or even jail term under the law.

So how does something become copyrighted?  Under the 1976 law once something becomes ‘tangible’, meaning it has been written down on paper, or recorded in some form it has become copyrighted.  Unlike a Trademark or Patent it is not necessary to register your work with any type of government office, in fact you do not even need to include a copyright notice anymore.

A fan film, by its very definition, is pretty much a copyright infringement.  This is because the fan filmmaker does not have permission to use the copyrighted characters and stories, and they especially cannot use them in anyway to make any sort of profit.  Unlike a lot of other copyright infringements a fan film is a little different. Copyright holders/owners, for the most part, will turn a blind eye to them (again as long as they are not making them for profit).  In fact a few of the major copyright holders tolerate fan films as a different medium to get their stories out there, and some even embrace them. The best example of this in the past few years is LucasFilm and Star Wars.

In 2002, LucasFilm and one of its partners AtomFilms started an annual contest to share and help promote the growing number of Star Wars fan films.  First called the “Official Star Wars Fan Film Awards” it was later renamed the “Star Wars Fan Movie Challenge.” These awards were originally limited to mockumentaries and parodies, not original stand alone stories.  For the first time, a copyright holder/owner not only acknowledged fan films, it gave them a forum to share them, and even offered prizes for their work.

When the name changed in 2007 so did some of the rules and almost (these included film length and content requirements) any Star Wars fan film was now eligible to enter.  A few examples of the past winners include The Jedi Hunter by John E. Hudgens that won the 2003 Audience Choice Award and 2004’s George Lucas in Love by Joe Nussbaum that won that years Pioneer Award.

Other copyright holders/owners have come down hard and even been hostile toward fanfilms.  In December 2015, Paramount Picture Corporation and CBS, owners of the Star Trek copyright, stated that the fan film Prelude to Axanar copied many of its works including characters, logos, terms and even costumes.  After almost a year of back and forth negotiation, a settlement was reached. In the settlement, fan films like Axanar could continue, however, a new set of guidelines for Star Trek fan films were introduced. These included time limits for the films length, restrictions on costumes and props, and of course the fan film has to be strictly non-commercial.

For all the good and bad examples of fan film makers in regards to copyright, it has not stopped filmmakers from making them. More fan films are being produced and made then ever before, and for a lot more genres then just Star Wars and Star Trek. Just last week my Podcast the Fan Film Boyz was contacted by an awesome filmmaker who is making a new Fallout fan film in Texas (I will share more on this in a later article, I promise).  As a fan filmmaker or if you are thinking of making a fan film it is important that you are aware of copyright.

It really comes down to this, a very basic concept.  If you do not own it, you cannot make money off it, but you can make an AWESOME fan film!

Robert is one of the hosts on Fan Film Boyz Podcast, a Podcast that discusses, reviews and helps promote fan films!  For in-depth discussion and interviews with directors, writers, actors, and actresses.  Keep your eyes peeled for future columns and check out their show.