Comedian Amy Schumer made waves with a series of sexually suggestive pictures accompanying an article in GQ magazine. From fellating a lightsaber to lying naked with some very famous droids, the images were a long way from the more family-friendly tone of Star Wars.
When a fan complained, Lucasfilm was quick to distance itself from the photoshoot.
@RogueKnite Lucasfilm & Disney did not approve, participate in or condone the inappropriate use of our characters in this manner.— Star Wars (@starwars) July 16, 2015
So how did a well-known magazine and comedian use some of the best-known characters and props in the world for this sort of photoshoot?
Send in the lawyers
The important thing is that Schumer and GQ were clearly making fun of Star Wars.
"Parody, which falls under a fair use analysis in United States copyright law, is considered pretty broadly as long as you can say that you are making fun of the thing being used," Brad Newberg said. Newberg is an intellectual property partner at the law firm of McGuireWoods LLP, whose practice is almost entirely copyright and trademark law.
"A good way to think about the difference is, on the one hand you have the 2 Live Crew case where they used the song Pretty Woman and that was considered fair use parody even though you could really could have done what 2 Live Crew did — replace what 2 Live Crew thought were predictable, bland lyrics with shocking vulgar ones — with any of a thousand songs."
So where is the line drawn?
"...Don Henley was able to successful stop political use of his songs with changed lyrics criticizing the politician’s opponent because a court found that the song itself wasn’t being made fun of or criticized, but was just being used to make commentary on something else," Newberg explained. "Weird A (Yankovic) — who always gets permission from the original artist anyway to be nice — is an interesting question in the middle, but I think most copyright lawyers would say Weird Al is in the clear whether he got permission or not."
This is a big part of Schumer's comedy: Taking seemingly innocent subjects or tones and quickly devolving into profane or sexually graphic jokes. The fact she's using family-friendly characters to be sexually explicit is what makes these images safe legally; she's parodying their original context.
"She’s also not using the characters in any sort of story line, so while character images are copyrightable, she can make an even stronger case that she is simply just twisting the way we think about iconic images," Newberg continued. "I also think GQ made a good decision by putting the more graphic photos inside the magazine as opposed to the cover as, while maybe not copyright infringement, some of those photos could have led to a better claim that the overall Star Wars brand was tarnished in some way for people just walking by a newsstand and not in on the joke."
For reference, here's the cover:
So Lucasfilm, which is now owned by Disney, may not be happy but there's little they can do.
"What is also interesting about this issue is the backstory of the Star Wars franchise in that, as long as it wasn’t going to be something that hurt merchandising, George Lucas was often and famously a very good sport about parody," Newberg stated. "In addition to encouraging and having contests for fan-fiction, Lucas blessed many of the Star Wars skits done by Robot Chicken, and there is certainly nothing about the Schumer photos that is any more offensive than anything done in that show."
Others involved in the Star Wars franchise didn't have the same issue as Lucasfilm, it seems.
If it's good enough for Luke Skywalker and the law, the case is pretty much closed.
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