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Universal vs The Browncoats

Page history last edited by PBworks 17 years, 7 months ago

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When Fox cancelled the fledgling sci-fi/western Firefly after only half a season in 2003, most of the world gave up on it. Its fans and its creators did not. Widespread fan campaigns, surprisingly strong DVD sales, and hard work on the part of show creator Joss Whedon led to a green light for a major motion picture. Firefly headed to the big screen in the form of the film Serenity, released by Universal Pictures.


From the start, fans were heavily involved in the promotion of the film. Universal set up a comprehensive official website, featuring message boards and a system of earning “points” to spend in the official online store. By completing various challenges to promote the film in specific ways, fans could earn official Serenity swag … and they did. They were called “Browncoats,” after the main characters in the series, and they quickly earned a reputation as fiercely loyal and enthusiastic participants in the creation of “their” movie.


Under Universal’s direction, Browncoats hung flyers, organized public Firefly viewing sessions, posted links in various outside forums, went on promotional scavenger hunts and attended preview screenings held during the summer before the film’s fall 2005 release. Universal’s site not only accepted fan art in the form of banners using the official movie logo, but hosted many of these graphics for download by others. Press coverage of the movie frequently noted the unusual lengths to which Universal had gone to involve its fans.


In 2006, Universal switched gears and ended its “partnership” with Firefly fandom. There was no official statement about the change of heart, but some have speculated that it Universal was/in planning to release its own line of merchandise, and did not wish to compete with the fans. In any case, lawyers began sending out Cease & Desist notices to various websites, especially targeting those selling Serenity-related merchandise on CafePress.com. “11thHour” was one such fan. In October of 2006, she received an email ordering her to remove all Serenity-related merchandise from her CafePress store. She complied, removing any items referring to the film, leaving only items with the Chinese characters for the word “serenity.”


One week later, 11thHour received a more serious letter in the mail. Universal lawyers demanded that within the next 72 hours, she agree to pay a retroactive $8,750 licensing fee, permanently close her CafePress shop, turn over any merchandise referring to the Universal Property, and provide complete sales records for the previous year. The letter also threatened action in federal court as well as statutory damages of $150,000 per infringed work.


The sale of unlicensed merchandise was not the only action Universal was prohibiting – the letter also required 11thHour to “permanently cease and desist from the advertising, promoting, marketing, sale or distribution of any products bearing or referring to Universal Property.” Browncoats promptly launched a campaign to help 11thHour, at one point creating a website called “The Browncoat Invoice\", a running tally of the number of hours logged by fans in the promotion of Serenity. The “amount due” by Universal Pictures, according to these fans, exceeded two million dollars for over 28,000 hours of work.


Further investigation revealed that the letter had been sent in response to a single sentence on an older page of 11thHour’s shop, explaining that shirts designated as “Art-Only” did not carry the film’s Serenity logo on the back. Universal lawyers said that the sentence suggested that other shirts did feature said logo. After 11thHour turned over the information requested and explained the situation, the legal action was concluded. Still, it will be some time before any Browncoat dares to publicly create promotional merchandise again.


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