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A Mister Rogers reimagining on YouTube lands in fair use dispute

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Newest entry in producer Adi Shankar’s contentious “Bootleg Universe”

Fred Rogers in Mister Rogers: A War Hero
Adi Shankar/YouTube

Producer Adi Shankar isn’t a stranger when it comes to copyright claims, but a new video in his YouTube channel’s ongoing “Bootleg Universe” series has rankled The Fred Rogers Company, leading to another rights dispute.

Mister Rogers: A War Hero reimagines everyone’s favorite, lovable host of PBS’ Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as a man who served in the army. The short is billed as a comedic take on the pop culture giant and within fair use guidelines. The Fred Rogers Company claims otherwise, and recently issued a copyright claim, requesting the original video be removed from Shankar’s channel.

ScreenCraft, the company which funded writer/director Kenlon Clark’s film after he won the 2016 ScreenCraft Bootleg Universe Short Screenplay Contest, told Polygon that Shankar has already disputed the claim, and the company’s executives are confident he will win his appeal.

“Adi Shankar disputed the copyright claim filed by The Fred Rogers Company this past Monday and they must respond by releasing the claim or upholding the claim,” John Rhodes, ScreenCraft co-founder, said in a statement. “I’m confident that YouTube will re-instate the short film because it clearly passes muster under the four factors of the fair use doctrine.

“ScreenCraft and Adi Shankar’s Bootleg Universe chose to produce this short screenplay by Kenlon Clark because of its artistic merit, re-interpreting a national icon and an urban legend for the sake of art, cultural commentary and comedic parody.”

An open letter posted on ScreenCraft’s website yesterday called out the company for issuing a claim, adding that those involved in the film and its funding “respectfully disagree” with actions taken.

“You have no right to stifle the artistic creation of an emerging creative talent with a formal copyright complaint to YouTube,” the letter reads. “Mr. Rogers is a celebrated public figure, and this short film is clearly a noncommercial work of art reinterpreting and paying homage to a beloved icon.”

Shankar’s “Bootleg Universe” is based on popular comics and film franchises, reimagining the characters as grittier versions of themselves. The Punisher, Venom, James Bond and that Power Rangers have all received the “Bootleg Universe” treatment — and led to similar copyright issues.

Saban Entertainment issued a DMCA takedown in 2015 over Shankar’s reinterpretation of the studio’s classic Power Rangers. His channel received another one less than two weeks later from MGM Studios over Shankar’s re-imagination of James Bond. Both short films, billed as “hard R-rated” versions of the properties, remained on YouTube after Shankar filed a successful appeal. A similar short based on the character Venom, however, failed to win its appeal.

Fair use cases on YouTube are a difficult arena to navigate, because the platform has no official rules; rulings are on a case-by-case basis. There are certain boxes that creators can tick off to ensure their content stays within the proper guidelines, but it comes down to the original rights owners to decide what they’re comfortable with. It can be harder for independent artists and creators to take on companies that file claims because of financial expenses that come with going to court.

Mister Rogers: A War Hero is still not available to watch at the time of this writing, but Polygon has reached out to both Shankar and the Fred Rogers Company for comment. A behind-the-scenes look at the movie with commentary can be seen below.