Lucasfilm sues would-be jedis: Lightsaber classes are not for everyone

The Walt Disney Company, which owns the popular 'Star Wars' franchise Lucasfilm, sued the Lightsaber Academy for using its trademarks without authorization.

Jason DeCrow/Invision for Hasbro/AP/File
Toy demonstrator Jeff Wolf gets in touch with his Dark Side wearing the in Hasbro’s showroom at the American International Toy Fair, Feb. 9, 2013, in New York.

It’s not just the "Star Wars" Jedi who can wave lightsabers with agility: The Lightsaber Academy, with locations in New York and California, teaches its members how to wield the prop with sword combat and martial arts skills.

But self-defense using the "Star Wars" film franchise’s weapon may be hopeless when it is up against the power of legally protected intellectual rights. A lawsuit was filed against the academy and its counterpart New York Jedi last week by the Walt Disney Company, owner of the film franchise, for using their trademark without prior authorization, according to The New York Times.

Disney alleges that the academy, founded by Michael Flynn, had used the trademarked terms "Jedi" and "Lightsaber" and copied the franchise’s distinctive elements and logos intentionally without authorization. Multiple cease-and-desist letters were sent to no avail.

"We protect our intellectual property rights vigorously and we take reports of suspected infringement seriously," a spokeswoman for Lucasfilm, the company that produced "Star Wars" but was bought by Disney, told The New York Times.

Copyright issues over famous film franchises can be a touchy issue, especially when increasingly large-production fan fiction intersects with studio-produced blockbusters. Most recently last December, Paramount Pictures and CBS sued producers of a crowdfunded, independent "Star Trek" prequel named "Anaxar" over alleged copyright infringements, as reported by the Los Angeles Times. "Star Wars" has itself spawned a huge collection of high-quality fan videos.

"The studios put up with this because they don’t want to alienate the fan base," Christine Cuddy, a partner at the entertainment law firm Kleinberg Lange Cuddy & Carlo., told the L.A. Times. "These fans can be very active on the Internet."

The reason why the Lightsaber Academy ran on the wrong side of the company might be because it is a profit-driven initiative, fan group 501st Legion’s spokesman Josh Mueller told The New York Times.

"The reason why we’ve done so well is that we’ve played ball," he said, "and we don’t charge."

One of the academy’s past Facebook events indicated that the cost of attending a session was $20 per person.

According to the complaint, Lucasfilm "holds the rights to develop, manufacture, market, license and sell products and services" under its trademarks, and it is seeking to be awarded in statutory damages of up to $2,000,000 for each trademark infringed.

The academy is described as a "consortium of lightsaber practitioners with a culmination of 50 years experience of teaching various swordplay techniques" on its website, even linking to a member’s blog post about her first lightsaber class and how she "learned to stop worrying and love the Jedi." Materials on the website touched more on the aspect of martial arts and fitness compared to dedication for the film franchise.

Over the years, Lucasfilm has actually been known to tolerate and interact with its fans who often create spinoffs and videos, even awarding a "Star Wars" Fan Film awards every year, although they've been aggressive in pursuing those who use their trademarks for profit, as listed by Vice.

But the lines between what is fan-produced and studio-sanctioned may be blurred with the rise of crowdfunding platforms and cheap but high-quality video cameras. "Star Trek" even went as far as to issue a guideline about what "amateur fan filmmakers" can do to "showcase their passion."

For example, the production must be non-commercial, less than 15 minutes for a single self-contained story with no additional seasons, and the title cannot include the name "Star Trek."

With popularity for these films still riding high after generations, movie companies may continue to see more of such cases. It is a money-making business, as Bloomberg finds. After all, the commercial "Force" has persisted and generated countless merchandise and activities since the 1970s.

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