Sharecropping on the Star Wars “Commons”

The good news is that Lucasfilm is now inviting fans to make their own mashups of Star Wars films, by putting 250 clips from six films on the Web. The site offers easy-to-use editing software so fans can make their own mini-videos using Yoda, C3PO, R2D2 and other Star Wars characters. Wow! Does this mean that Hollywood is finally accepting remix culture and learning how to groove on the “sharing economy”?

Uh…not quite. The bad news is that Lucasfilm is pioneering a more insidious of enclosure of the cultural commons. The Company owns the farm, you get the freedom to plant and cook to your heart’s content — but the Company gets to own whatever you produce. Larry Lessig has called this digital “sharecropping,” an unsavory redefinition of “freedom.” It’s the latest trend: the corporate exploitation of online social commons using one-sided contracts that disenfranchise users from any significant legal rights to own and control their work.

Instead of insisting upon perfect control of their “intellectual property,” Hollywood is willing to let us peasants mess around with some film clips they select — but only if they are not mixed without other copyrighted works or other Star Wars content; and only if there is no vulgarity or nudity or politics; and only if the final mash-up passes muster with online moderators (outsourced help living in Costa Rica!); and only if the commoners surrender all rights to any future uses of a mash-up.

Consider this brief excerpt of legalese taken from the Star Wars Mash-ups website:

Lucas, its licensees, successors and assigns shall be entitled to and shall solely and exclusively have the right to exploit throughout the world, all rights in the materials prepared by you with respect to the Film Wars Mashup Film — [and here I paraphrase a gnarled knot of lawyer-speak which in effect says: “…and we retain the right to change your work in whatever way we want, without your permission].”

The Terms of Service contract adds: “…you grant Lucas a ‘perpetual and irrevocable, non-exclusive, royalty-free worldwide license in all rights, titles, interests of every kind and nature now or hereafter known.’” Fairly comprehensive, don’t ya think?

Why is Lucasfilm venturing into the world of mash-ups? Because unauthorized mashups on YouTube using Star Wars characters are a lost revenue source — and because the played-out franchise has to find new ways to flog itself. The WSJ reports (5/24/07) that a search on YouTube for “Star Wars” yields more than 98,000 videos, drawings and other content from the movies. Lucasfilm gets no revenue from all this fan creativity. So the Lucasfilm strategy is to offer an official website so it can “monetize” fan mash-ups for itself.

As a Lucasfilm executive, Jeffrey Ulin, explained, the mash-ups are “part of keeping the love of Star Wars and the franchise alive” now that no more Star Wars movies are planned. “We’re really trying to position ourselves for the next 30 years.” The idea is that the mash-ups will “bring re-focused attention on all the Star Wars movies, helping to boost DVD and merchandise sales,” says the WSJ.

Star Wars has always presented itself as a money-making, mega-merchandising machine, so perhaps no one should have expected Lucasfilm to grant its fans any significant “freedom.” However, what PR even a smidgen of user “freedom” can earn! The WSJ headline read “Make-It-Yourself _Star Wars.”

The real point is that online sharecropping through faux-commons is a trend of the future. The owners of mass-media content will increasingly try to entice fans to participate in phony commons that purport to give fans some small measure of creative freedom. That’s the bait. The trap snaps shut when their participation is legally enclosed and monetized for the company. There are 50 Ways to Co-opt the Commoners.

Here’s another example: Facebook users routinely disclose all sorts of personal information about themselves — favorite music, political affiliations, sexual orientation, friends, and much more. And then Facebook uses sophisticated data-mining software to slice and dice the data in order to sell it to marketers. It’s another example of what happens when the commoners don’t actually own the own commons. Here’s a cautionary video explaining what’s going on.

I say that commoners should hold out for more. The value being created through fandom ought to belong to fans, not exclusively to Big Corporations. If fans are expected to sustain the economic value of the Star Wars franchise for the next thirty years by keeping the stories and characters in circulation, they need a bigger piece of the action for themselves. They need legal rights in their creative output or some equity share of the profits. Why should the owners of Star Wars be allowed to free ride on the social enthusiasms and creativity of fans? That’s the scenario coming down.

I confess that I’ve enjoyed a few of the Star Wars films, and I admire their creative achievements. That said, serious mash-up artists should steer clear of the Lucasfilm Mashups site. It’s nothing more than a high-tech exploitation of fandom.