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The Tragic Abuse of Copyright

Updated: Feb 13, 2022

by Ian Sturak

Copyright seems intrinsically important to a society like ours - built on the transference of ideas. The critical purpose of copyright seems to be to appeal to our sense of strict moral judgement, you can’t just take what we deem to belong to others. In the words of the Statute of Anne, often recognized to be the world’s first copyright law, passed under the Parliament of Great Britain in 1710, “Printers, Booksellers, and other Persons, have of late frequently taken the Liberty of Printing, Reprinting, and Publishing, or causing to be Printed, Reprinted, and Published Books, and other Writings, without the Consent of the Authors or Proprietors of such Books and Writings, to their very great Detriment, and too often to the Ruin of them and their Families,” - in short, it was warning against printers and booksellers printing other’s works without their permission, taking all the profit, and leaving none in turn for the originator.

Copyright law seems to have no downside at this point in time. It protects the intellectual property of the originator of a work, makes sure they are compensated for reproductions of their work, and encourages more creativity all around - if you can’t steal someone else’s work for profit, you’re more likely to make your own.

But in our day in age, as copyright is increasingly less used by individual creators, who lack the funds to enforce it on massive scales, but is more abused by corporations, who use it less to protect their specific works than to monopolize the attention of a populace, it seems that copyright has lost its way. Instead of encouraging creativity, it’s used to do everything it can to stop it.

In an interview with James Luceno, it was heartwarming to learn that in recollection of the moment in late 2005 where Luceno sat down at his laptop in a small cafe, he stated that he “nearly kneeled over'' at a request from Lucasfilm Licensing to write a book about the character he’d never dreamed of having the chance to elaborate upon. And while this seems almost backwards, as it’s not always the writer’s job to be told what to write, this was the standard for Luceno when dealing with the company he had come in contact with.

Luceno was a seasoned writer in the Star Wars universe, a franchise of books, movies, and various games run by Lucasfilm, a corporation that had grown from the indie film studio of director George Lucas into a multimedia managing conglomerate dedicated to several properties. Lucasfilm Licensing was the subsidiary specifically dedicated to managing the copyright of their projects - Star Wars being the most important.

Despite the austere and unadorned nature of its name and business, Lucasfilm Licensing carried power with it. In its hands were the sole rights to the Star Wars intellectual property; they alone managed them.

Luceno’s dealings took him on a crash course with one man - a shadowy figure who was often not brought to the public forefront, but nonetheless was one of the most influential figures on the writers of the strange niche genre of Star Wars writing.

The then-president of the Lucasfilm Licensing subsidiary was an American lawyer named Howard Roffman. Roffman was hired after the release of the final original trilogy Star Wars movie, 1983’s Return of the Jedi, and, seeing that the franchise had finally slowed down, felt that his job was impossible; with no movies coming out, there was no way to make money off of the rights he managed - he believed that he was set up for failure. In a 2010 TEDxSoMa talk Roffman gave, he remembers initially dismissing the Star Wars universe as “dead.”

And to the lawyer in him, it was. If Lucas didn’t want to make more movies, then that was the extent of it. Lucas was Star Wars, it was his. There was nothing to market without him creating material.

It was only after talking to Lucas himself in a meeting he had entered with a rather nihilistic perspective, convinced that nothing could be made of the fading property, that he was enlightened to the fact that Lucas wasn’t essential to the universe. Lucas provided him with the idea of licensing out the universe to writers, filling in what he hadn’t, expanding his cosmos.

The idea was experimental, and contrary to a lot of what Roffman represented, where he was supposed to protect the rights, giving them to toy stores and marketing companies. Lucas’ selfless gesture to casually let others play around in the sandbox of his design was strangely kind in the harsh capitalist environment he worked in. Nonetheless, writer Timothy Zahn was hired, and the first true novel of Star Wars set beyond the movies was written - Heir To Empire, released to incredible reviews from moviegoers and critical novelistic reviewers alike.

Its amazing success led to the expansion of Roffman's job, including larger management responsibilities, as well as leasing and advertising books, comics, and games, all of which expanded the stories consumers knew and loved to unimaginable lengths.

However, they were never completely free in this area. Roffman kept all the writers to a strict “continuity,” which, in his TEDx talk, Roffman describes as “all these stories [having] to be consistent with the movies, but also consistent with each other.” He micromanaged the fine details of each author’s work - crafting a universe as clean of contradictions as he could make it - which had the inadvertent effect of leaving thousands of story ideas to go rejected, unused.

Star Wars novels only rose in popularity, even as George Lucas went back to filmmaking, creating a trilogy of prequel movies to his originals. Lucas himself had little care for the novels - he chose what aspects of them he liked and included them in his movies, and chose to ignore what he didn’t from the wider universe. To him, that was the harmony of storytelling. Those were his movies, the books were the author’s. But he never had disdain for the books - one of the main planets of the prequel trilogy had its name changed to match one of the earliest expanded universe novels, and he continued to write spaces upon spaces into his scripts, worlds for the other authors to explore and expand.

To Lucas this was beautiful, but to Roffman, it was merely frustrating. With what control he had over the universe beyond the movies, he continued to administer his lawyer-esque hold over his writers, finely manipulating their craftsmanship and drawing their stories into even tighter connections. And by the time 2005 came along, and James Luceno sat in the backbench of a coffee shop, reading through his email, he was well accustomed to this and saw it as simply a fact of life when writing for one of the biggest shared universes of the time - nothing more, nothing less. At the time, the finale to the second Star Wars trilogy of movies, Revenge of the Sith, had only just left theaters. Name-dropped by the villain of the franchise, Ian McDiarmid’s character of the fascist politician Sheev Palpatine, in a scene set at a melodramatic opera, was “Darth Plagueis the Wise.” Described in the film as a genius, Luceno was sure that he of all people would be off-limits, Roffman’s strict rules about who and what you could write about, or even the broader world-defining restriction put in place by the higher-ups at Lucasfilm, would be sure to not allow him to explore such a character. Despite his instant allure to write about him, Luceno had thought he had known better than to even pitch the book.

And yet, there the email was, giving him the opportunity of his writing career.

He accepted the offer without a second thought and was flown out to Skywalker Ranch, Lucas’ private writing retreat, where all the most important story beats and decisions for the Star Wars universe were made. There he met with two men most in charge of what happened around the story of Star Wars - George Lucas himself, and Howard Roffman. Their juxtaposition provided Luceno with an interesting view of both their philosophies surrounding the project.

Lucas himself had few limitations around the story - he mainly wanted to make sure the conceptual beats of his universe were consistent more than anything else. To him, and the simple morality tales shown through his writing, reminiscent of the fairy tales that he originally planned out Star Wars to be, evil would always have physical effects on a person. Luceno remembers that one of his only requests about the story was that, as it was centered on a villain, he should be injured partway through the book and forced to wear some sort of breathing device. Otherwise, Lucas was largely receptive to whatever Luceno brought to the table, respecting him not merely as a freelancer underling whose goal was to bring profit to his franchise, but a fellow creator - an equal, a visionary. One of his only other contributions to the book was guided by Luceno himself - when he asked if the main character could be non-human, Lucas provided a species he had hoped would get some expansion from the writers of his universe.

Roffman, in strict contrast to Lucas, set down strict guidelines for Luceno, guiding exactly when and where he could take the story. He knew that the area set before the first Star Wars movie, The Phantom Menace, when the book took place was unlikely to be overwritten in a future film, and such was his to dictate.

Despite restrictions, it was the type of harsh and creatively restrictive environment Luceno was used to. The book was formally announced in June 2006 and planned to come out in 2008.

Planning for months, Luceno’s love for the project was demonstrated in his fabled first draft of the book - an epic of altruism and care, of selfishness and sacrifice. It came out longer than Star Wars novels typically were, and ultimately it was too much its own project - it tied up too many loose ends, and for the strict lawyer’s world of Roffman, invaded too much space that was supposed to be left in reserve for other projects. Lucasfilm Licensing officials found themselves opposed to many aspects of it - its direction, content, length.

Eventually, the book was put on permanent hold, canceled in all but name by Roffman and his like, discontent with how the novel interfered with a universe they had co-opted for their own from its creator.

Years later, Luceno re-pitched Darth Plagueis to Lucasfilm, feeling a sense of loss for the months of research he had put into the fictional time period, as well as the vast real-world multi-cultural influences that surrounded Lucas’ original influences. Though it was accepted, and published on January 10, 2012, Luceno’s had to make serious concessions to make the book work.

It reads at five hundred pages - an impressive sum, among not just science fiction novels but among all novels, but still a far cry from the epic of Luceno’s original drafts. The main character has shifted away from Plagueis himself - the very man which Luceno had such an allure to write about, but was found “disinteresting” for Roffman, and instead mainly focuses on Palpatine. And more than anything else, the last third of the novel reads like a slight commentary from Luceno on how Roffman liked his universe.

It’s over a hundred pages of just connections, hidden references, and in-depth explanations for as many other works of pre-Phantom Menace literature than one can find. It’s the sum of all the continual writing Luceno did preparing to re-pitch his work in the years after his cancellation. And while it’s beautifully done, and a masterful connection to every possible aspect of the Star Wars galaxy possible, it’s also not Luceno’s story.

Instead, it’s Roffman’s story, as he wanted it.

It’s so much of Luceno’s influence simply removed, so much of what he wanted to characters he wasn’t allowed to use to be, gone.

It’s like a beautiful, tragic work, all in one. A lost story, one crushed by a corporate wheel that it simply couldn’t fit into.

The concept of the public domain is that of the stories of humans not protected by copyright - and free for anyone to do whatever they want with them. In the 1831 Copyright Act, one of the first clauses to definitively revise copyright and decide when a copyrighted work entered the public domain, it gave twenty-eight years between creation and the release of the rights to the public.

In some utterly cruel irony, the first Star Wars was created in 1977 - twenty-eight years later was 2005, the very year Luceno was hired to write Darth Plagueis. That year, the universe should have been free for him to write his story, not the one Roffman restricted him to. But instead, year after year, Congress is lobbied to extend copyrights, bring them to where they are now - the life of the creator, and seventy years afterwards.

And it’s ironic - because it’s not the authors that ask Congress to do this. Lucas was fine with other people playing in his universe. That didn’t mean he would beholden himself to what they wrote, his movies and TV shows caused thousands of continuity errors with the outside works. But it also didn’t mean that he would beholden them to him, as Roffman did. Lucas saw that the universe was anyone else’s as much as his, and fought for them to be able to write in it.

Authors aren’t the ones who want copyright to be extended, keeping works restricted for longer periods of time. At the end of the day, it’s corporations - Disney being the greatest offender. Disney, who built their movie empire off of animating old stories that had fallen into the public domain - Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty - lobbies Congress not so that their work can’t be plagiarized like the intent of copyright, but so that others can’t succeed as they did - remixing and changing their oldest works, bringing creativity to them. As each of their old movies falls back towards the realm of the public domain, their grip on them only tightens. If someone makes a live-action remake of one of their movies, it must be them. Marvel movies that fill theaters en masse have to be of their design - it’s not anyone else’s world to explore, it’s theirs. They stifle creativity to make sure that any profits are theirs, and theirs alone.

As of 2014, Disney has another property to add to their theater-filling collection of animations and Marvel films - Star Wars. George Lucas famously referred to selling his worlds to Disney as “my kids… and I’ve loved them, I created them, I’m very heavily involved in them, and obviously… I sold them to the white slavers that take these things and…” In the interview, Lucas just trails off, but his comment remains - Disney, the white slavers.

Since their purchase of Star Wars, all the expanded content beyond the movies - books, comics, games, was rendered completely non-canon. And while most of the expanded universe wasn’t very good at all, to leave it behind without thought is dismissive of years of work - it’s Disney saying once again that they don’t want to share with anyone. That they want it to be their work.

It’s obvious that it’s not something George Lucas - who let writers into his universe wherever he could - would have wanted. It’s more following in the steps of Roffman, though fueled not by a meticulous goal to have a connected universe, but rather merely by profit.

It’s not something any creator would have wanted.

And most of all, it’s not something that copyright was meant for. A simple law, merely meant to encourage creativity, now utterly stifles it.

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