Star Wars, George Lucas and Copyright Mythology

Not that long ago in a common room very, very nearby, Kolton Harris ’14  and Professor Jeff Strabone of the English department held a discussion about perhaps the largest cultural phenomenon of the last century: Star Wars.
“Star Wars is a lot more complex than even just the movies,” said Harris near the beginning of the discussion. Indeed, the movies touch upon age-old themes such as the hero (Luke Skywalker) presented with a quest that he must, albeit unwillingly, accept and rise to complete, as well as Oedipal struggles between father and son. Strabone kicked off the discussion with a YouTube clip featuring scene-for-scene comparisons of the original three movies and a film by Akira Kurosawa named Hidden Fortress (1958). The visual similarities are often uncanny; George Lucas acknowledges that many elements of Star Wars, such as the droid companions R2-D2 and C-3P0 and the rescuing of Princess Leia, were highly influenced by Kurosawa’s film.

But  has gone far beyond mere film. Recently, Disney purchased Lucasfilm for a whopping $4.05 billion dollars, and the Star Wars franchise is easily one of the most profitable in the history of the world. Star Wars merchandise comes in literally—and I stress the use of this word “literally”—every single form imaginable, from bed sheets to coffee mugs and doormats. During the discussion, Strabone talked about how Star Wars has become something like mythology and yet not quite the same over the years. “Everyone knows [the story of Star Wars],” said Strabone. “Yet anything goes.” Through the sheer mass of merchandise, children are capable of telling their own Star Wars stories through action figures and play-sets. This is because mythology lacks a single author; you could write a sci-fi rendering of the story of the Trojan War tomorrow and Homer couldn’t sue. There are thousands of stories within the Star Wars universe that go well beyond what is offered in the films thanks to the hundreds of authors who have contributed to the Star Wars mythos over the years in various forms of narrative such as books, graphic novels, and video games.

But this is where Star Wars differs from previous mythology: I could write my own version of the Empire Strikes Back, but Disney wouldn’t let it see the light of day—unless of course I had their permission. That’s what has made Disney’s recent purchase of Star Wars so significant—we are once again being reminded that Star Wars is in fact intellectual property, something owned by a corporation and (arguably) intended to generate revenue. Star Wars can really only be altered by the owners—according to Professor Strabone, this is a new concept in mythology. Take for example the infamous Star Wars Christmas Special that aired in the seventies; it has since been eliminated from the official movie canon and is rather hard to find. I might not enjoy the three prequel films as much as the originals, but that doesn’t mean I could get them removed from the canon. Star Wars is the first real example of copyright mythology, not to mention mythology inspired by a visual medium.

It is partially the rigidity of the Star Wars canon that has helped it to endure over the years, but many have expressed anger over this lack of control. It’s no secret that a large majority of Star Wars fans hold a strong dislike for the three prequels released starting with The Phantom Menace in 1999. The Star Wars universe suddenly felt child-oriented and the overall quality of the acting and directing felt off, whereas the original films appealed to virtually every age group. This is a potential problem for any “corporate owned” mythology; where do the wishes of the filmmaker and the audience begin to collide?

It also raises the important question: Who really owns Star Wars? Yes, Disney does as far as the law is concerned, but what if the law were to change? What if tomorrow Star Wars were in the public domain? Is it unfair that Lucas was able to re-appropriate images and elements from Hidden Fortress without persecution, yet if I write The Adventures of Han Solo and Chewbacca tomorrow I’ll probably be sued for every penny I own? Questions like these are what continue to make Star Wars a relevant force in the ever-evolving nature of narrative and mythology.  •

  

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