Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Intellectual property doesn’t bind the universe together

By Mark McDonough

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AT-AT for America (Facebook)

Crunch time is upon us, and if only I meant cereal. We’re at that time where the average student would happily (tiredly) sell his soul to Beelzebub for an extra day to study.

The wild student’s natural repose has always been (since the 1990s) in cyberspace — there’s no escape like a fake one. Many college students have stumbled upon a project called “AT-AT for America,” a plan to build an AT-AT in the Great Plains, in recent months. If you’ve watched “Star Wars” the obligatory minimum of 10 times (required for citizenship), then you know that an AT-AT (All Terrain Armored Transport), or Imperial walker, is a gigantic (around 70 feet tall) death machine on four legs whose only weakness is a Jedi or a plane with a rope. St. Anselm defined God as “that which no greater can be conceived,” so he was basically making an early step in the AT-AT project, because it’s pretty hard to conceive of anything greater than an AT-AT. The question of whether creating an AT-AT can be achieved far outshines the one that asks what it would be once finished – “awesome” seems to be the appropriate answer to that.

For over a week, donations and offers of free labor have poured in to the Oklahoma man (nay, visionary) Mike Koehler who is putting the whole thing together. The project has over 2,000 Facebook fans. “Attack of the Show” picked up on it, and, with time, real television shows probably would have as well.

Speaking of selling souls to Beelzebub – one of George Lucas’ trapped souls, whose sole job is to Google “Star Wars” and make sure no one is doing anything fun with their idea, came across it, as well (perhaps while studying on the extra day Lucas granted him before exams). No matter how I try, I cannot figure out why they made the AT-AT for America project stop, but they did. The headline “Giant AT-AT Imperial Walker Destroys East Manhattan” could only make  Lucasfilm more money – isn’t that why they’ve put out loads and loads of crap since “Return of the Jedi?” It would be the most exciting thing “Star Wars’” has done since the revelation (spoiler alert!) that Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker’s father.

This isn’t the first time  Lucasfilm has stepped in like the federal government and told fans to stop the horseplay. When the University of Mississippi wanted to replace its mascot, Colonel Rebel (for understandable reasons), there grew a large group of students who endorsed Admiral Ackbar (of “It’s a trap!” fame). It looked very possible that the Mississippi Rebels would be represented by a fish creature who leads rebel forces in space, until  Lucasfilm sent the college a humorous letter about how the admiral was unavailable as he was busy fighting evil in another galaxy. Although I have to give Lucasfilm kudos on the letter, I don’t on the decision.

Why not let the college nerds have their fun? If anything, it would be free advertising.

These aren’t isolated events. There’s a documentary set to come out this summer titled “The People vs. George Lucas.” It will address the many issues fans of Lucas’ franchises are angry about (including the three prequel “Star Wars” movies and “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”). He’s been parodied countless times by shows like “South Park,” “Robot Chicken” and “How it should have Ended,” though that’s stock and store for anyone of his fame. If you Google image search “Han shot first,” you’ll find images of him wearing an anti-himself t-shirt with the words “Han shot first” in reference to the way he digitally changed a scene in the first “Star Wars” film to make Han’s character less of a dirtbag. The phrase has become a sort of rallying cry for nerds across the country.

In any case, the AT-AT for America project picked up momentum at an alarming rate. One retired submarine officer wrote a letter asking the creator of the project why, if so many volunteers and so much money are going to his project, big problems (other than the lack of AT-AT walkers) in the country can’t be fixed. I suppose it was an obvious question, though significant. The answer, of course, is that we’re not willing to devote our time, money, and energy to feeding the hungry or sheltering the homeless. In any case, that’s too close to preaching for a half decent article (I aim high).

Other questions arise, less poignant, though still important. To what degree is “intellectual property” property? The workman (artist) deserves wages, but these people at the University of Mississippi didn’t want to write books set in the “Star Wars” universe which throw Lucas’ whole plan for the future off kilter (I’m sure nobody wants that…), they wanted to use a minor character as a school mascot. The AT-AT for America people weren’t trying to sell pirated copies of “Star Wars” DVDs, they were trying to build a machine that looks like something from the film, and does Lucas really have the right to deny them that?

Mark McDonough is more machine now than man, as well as being a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected].


2 Responses to “Intellectual property doesn’t bind the universe together”

  1. Dean C on April 26th, 2011 1:44 pm

    Great column. I love Star Wars, but didn’t know about AT-AT for America and intellectual property “violation.” You’re right- “if anything it would be free advertising.” Protecting creative rights is important, but intellectual property fundamentalists are not helping anyone, including themselves.

  2. Michael Rohm on April 26th, 2011 6:41 pm

    I’m opposed to overzealous copyright, m’self (may the MAFIAA, Disney and other such groups fester in a pit for eternity) but I can see LucasFilms’ point.

    Star Wars is a hot property. If they permit things like AT-AT for America and Admiral Ackbar, then unfortunately, the slippery slope argument can come into play because they’ve then lost control of their trademarks and any idiot with a website can start not just using characters from SW for non-profit projects, but for profit-making ventures.

    Imagine Threadless suddenly being filled by wannabe wits making “funny” Star Wars t-shirts, filled with formerly trademarked designs and art – LucasFilms isn’t seeing a penny from any of it.

    Unlike downloading the latest Foo Fighters LP or a DVD or something like that, money is being exchanged – and Lucas is not seeing it.

    It’s a sad situation. LucasArts has been really good about their stuff being spoofed and referenced repeatedly in popular culture, esp. the SW series (just look at Kevin Smith, who owes much of his career to SW jokes, or Family Guy, or Thumb Wars, or Robot Chicken, etc etc.)

    Letting trademarked characters appear anywhere, letting others profit from such merchandise (i.e. bootleg shirts, toys, lightsabers, whatever), which is inevitably what would happen, is not really a solution. They need to think of a way to protect their characters, but permit hobbyists and fans to use them for fun, so long as no profit is being made and the products are clearly marked as having nothing to do with LucasArts.

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