As you may be aware, recently Universal's licensing arm has been contacting Serenity fans who sell Serenity-inspired merchandise with requests to cease and desist. This has caused some uproar among the fan base, and I thought I'd take a moment to explain our concerns.
It's not that we don't understand that you must take steps to protect your intellectual property. We do, or most of us do. And we understand that not only do you have the right, you have a duty to do so or you would be doing a disservice both to your company and to the companies who have paid for licenses to produce official merchandise.
The problem many of us are having is with the method used.
A few weeks ago the owner of bluesunshirts.com was contacted by FOX and asked to remove his merchandise by a specified date. He did so. There was some grumbling amongst the forums but there was never really a question of whether he should comply or not. A simple request, and he shut down.
This week the Browncoat known as 11th Hour Art received a Cease and Desist notice from CafePress letting her know that Universal objected to portions of her store and she immediately began making the requested changes. Then e-mail from ther law firm representing Universal Studios Licensing LLLC arrived, giving her 72 hours to produce all shirts and other goods from the store, any promotional materials which refer to Serenity, copies of complete sales records for the past year, and remit $8,750 as a retroactive blanket license fee. She was also informed she could be held liable for attorney’s fees, treble damages, statutory damages, and punitive damages, and $150,000 statutory damages fee per infringed work for cases of willful copyright infringement. This despite the fact that while she referenced the movie in her promotional copy, she sold her own artistic designs that did not use logos, character likenesses, or images from the movie.
Many of the fans, myself included, are disturbed by this move, not because of the legal aspects but because of the serious lack of understanding it displays between Universal and its fans, particularly one who has worked harder than most at successfully and creatively promoting Serenity. I sincerely hope that the action against 11th Hour will be resolved amicably to the satisfaction of all involved, but right now people who have been spending large portions of their time acting as unpaid marketers for your intellectual property — the very same people who are the biggest audience for any licensed material — are talking about organizing letter writing campaigns and boycotts.
I'm not suggesting you stop protecting your property, not at all. But I would like to suggest that picking off respected fans one at a time with a bazooka is not the way to go about it, especially since the official movie site's encouragement of fan-based viral marketing left the issue a little fuzzy in the minds of many fans. The answer lies in open communication. I think you would have gotten a much better reaction by sending a letter to the major Firefly/Serenity fan sites and forums with something like this:
"Hi! Great to see so many people still love this movie as much as we do. And we think you'll be pleasantly surprised at the new official items we have coming along.
But we've noticed a number of Browncoats selling unlicensed Serenity merchandise and we have to ask that you cease offering any items containing trademarked logos, screenshots, or character likenesses from the film by such and such a date. Shops and websites continuing to sell items as described after that date will be contacted by our legal department. I'm sure you understand that while we welcome fan-based measures to increase awareness of Serenity, we can't condone unofficial merchandise that infringes on our copyrights and may lessen the value of commercial licenses.
We appreciate all you've done and hopefully will continue to do to keep Serenity in the air."
I'm sure you'd word it better than that — at least more legally-sounding — but the point would be that it's simple, direct, and it would get us working with you to increase the value of the franchise, something we all want. We'd be disappointed, but we're also all eager for new licensed material to come out. Plus we'd be deliriously happy that we were still being included, that we were still part of the whole thing.
When Serenity was being marketed there was constant encouragement from Universal for innovative viral marketing by fans, and that sort of interactivity drove us to new heights of resourcefulness and dedication. By keeping us in the loop and continuing to communicate openly we'd get the word out for you and save you the time and hassle of drafting individual letters for each shop by shutting ourselves down first.
We understand your position, we really do. But it appears obvious that you don't understand us, and that makes a difference. A large part of why this property and its licenses remain valuable is due to the efforts of the fans. Just talk to us. We'll listen. You don't have to yell.
C. A. Bridges