For the last decade, Marjorie Carvalho and her husband have produced Star Wars Action News, a podcast dedicated to Star Wars collectibles of all sorts. Predictably, they’ve had a lot to talk about, as waves of action figures and other collectibles have been launched in the run-up to the much-anticipated release of Star Wars: Episode VII—The Force Awakens next week.
On Tuesday, a Star Wars Action News staffer saw something he shouldn’t have—and bought it. A 3 3/4″ action figure of “Rey,” a female character from The Force Awakens, was on display in a Walmart in Iowa, apparently earlier than it should have been. The staff member bought it for $6.94 plus tax, no questions asked. The following day, he posted pictures of the Rey figure on Star Wars Action News’ Facebook page.
“Have we known this figure was coming?” the staffer, named Justin, asked in the post. “I just found her at Walmart—no new other figures.”
A short time later, Carvalho got a surprising message.
“A friend texted my husband saying, hey, are you getting sued?” said Carvalho in an interview with Ars. The image from the Facebook post was gone. “We looked and noticed we’d gotten a notice from Facebook saying our image violated copyright. It was confusing because our staff member, Justin, he took the photo.”
The image had quickly spread through social media—and just as fast, Lucasfilm, its owner Disney, and at least one third-party content policing company have blanketed the Internet with Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown notices.
Carvalho’s husband replaced the Facebook post with a note telling her followers the images must be kept off her site.
“Those photos have gone viral—they’re out there,” he wrote. “But they aren’t here. And we will not be posting them again as we consider Hasbro a valuable partner in our coverage of Star Wars toys.”
(There was some initial confusion about who sent the notices, but they were sent by Disney, Lucasfilm, and copyright enforcement agents—not Hasbro, which produces the toys.)
Not everyone reacted so amicably. Jeremy Conrad, who runs a fan website called Star Wars Unity and an associated Twitter account, got a DMCA notice from Lucasfilm when he re-tweeted photos of the figure. That notice, sent by a third-party enforcement company called Irdeto, described the infringement as “a screen shot of an unreleased figurine for Star Wars: Force Awakens.”
“It’s not unreleased if you can walk into Walmart and buy the damn toy!” wrote Conrad on his website. “Due to this I urge all Star Wars fans to avoid Hasbro product and not purchase any of their Star Wars releases. Until Hasbro grows a brain and stops bullying fans online, they do not deserve any of our money.”
Spoilers and Fair Use
The image wasn’t well-received by all of Carvalho’s hard-core fan base, in any case. That’s because—and I’ll try to keep this as vague as possible here—for fans who are knowledgeable about the Star Wars universe, Rey’s costume itself, and the packaging, is a kind of “spoiler.”
While that information suggests that highly spoiler-phobic fans should not start searching the Internet for images of Rey’s unreleased figure, there’s no law against spoilers (although, one gets the feeling a lot of people would support one—especially if it could be enforced for the next seven days.)
Legally speaking, Disney does have a copyright in the appearance of an action figure it produces, as well as the packaging. And a photo of a copyrighted item can sometimes be infringing. But a photo on a fan blog that essentially says “check out what I just bought” has an extremely strong claim to fair use, according to Mitch Stolz of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
“Yes there’s a copyright, but I don’t think that entitles Disney and Lucasfilm to try to make that image disappear from the Internet,” he said. “Someone may have screwed up, and violated an agreement as to when the toys would hit the shelves. But that doesn’t make a photo of a toy forbidden information.”
Carvalho hasn’t ever had any pushback from other Star Wars figures she’s posted images of, which are similarly copyrighted by Disney. The same photos that are being swept off the Internet today, may be welcomed as a valued promotion when the figures are officially launched, presumably about a week from now.
Lucasfilm didn’t respond to a request for comment about the takedown notices sent via email.
Source: Ars Technica