A new legal battle over fanfic might be shaping up. In the last couple of days, music video director Joseph Kahn and producer Adi Shankar released a 15-minute short film reimagining Power Rangers as a grim and gritty dark future drama a la Pacific Rim. The film stars name actors, including James Van Der Beek, Katee Sackhoff, and Die Another Day’s Will Yun Lee. And it almost immediately ran into legal trouble.
A “NSFW” version (violence, language, nudity) was up on Vimeo for a few hours before getting taken down by a DMCA infringement notice from Saban. A safe-for-work version is still on YouTube, though it’s anybody’s guess how long it will remain up.
It’s not terribly surprising this would happen. Power Rangers is still a huge media property, both in the USA and overseas, and Saban is known to be very enthusiastic about defending its brand. It even horned in on Chroma Squad, a Kickstarter-funded strategy game designed to use generic sentai tropes without specific use of anyone else’s intellectual property. Saban didn’t see it that way. Lacking the money to fight the matter out in court, the developers had to come to an agreement with Saban that would allow the game to move forward. Sadly, it apparently involves an NDA.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out for Kahn and Shankar, film-industry professionals who presumably do have the kind of money it takes to fight at least some legal battles—though whether they’ll do so over a labor-of-love fan film that isn’t earning them any money is an open question.
As Deadline points out, it’s not exactly an open-and-shut case that this is copyright infringement.
A top entertainment industry copyright attorney, who asked not to be identified, told Deadline that “there is a gray area of ‘fan fiction’ where tributes are made by fans and the studios don’t want to piss off their base by going after these people legally. The guy may have a fair use defense, or a de minimis use defense. It’s not a slam dunk by either side. Trademark law applies as well.”
The so called “fair use doctrine” allows a certain amount of free use of copyrighted material. According to the U.S. Copyright Office, “The distinction between what is fair use and what is infringement in a particular case will not always be clear or easily defined. There is no specific number of words, lines, or notes that may safely be taken without permission.” It notes, however, that one of the key tests in determining fair use is “whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes.”
So far, there haven’t been too many legal cases looking at fanfic-related issues, given that most fanfic authors lack the money to defend it in court. Whether a legal win here would have any significance for fanfic is still unclear. It will be interesting to see what will happen if the filmmakers decide to fight it out.