Mighty Morphin’ Copyright Battles

Youtube has become a melting pot for ideas and forms of expression, and a primary stop for entertainment for a burgeoning generation and those that came before them. Buried beneath music videos, Let’s Plays and cute animals is one of the most rewarding avenues for those willing to invest time into finding: short films. Amateur film-makers working on and perfecting their craft with an open means of distribution to the world. There is plenty of original concepts of varying degrees of quality, but the films that tend to get more exposure, just like in Hollywood, are the ones based off an existing franchise.

Last week the latest to earn some measure of virality was by music video director Joseph Kahn with Power/Rangers, a gritty re-imagining/adaptation/parody of the incredibly successful 90’s franchise Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. The fifteen minute long film is far more professionally made than the average Youtube short film, featuring actors Katee Sackoff (Battlestar Galactica) and James Van Der Beek (Dawson’s Creek) and utilising CGI and effects far beyond the typical fan made budget. The aim? To re-imagine the cheesy children’s program with a darker and edgier tone.

But the fan film came under threat by Saban Entertainment, who own the rights to the Mighty Morphin’ franchise. While over the past couple of days the issue has been resolved, Saban did succeed in getting the short pulled from both Vimeo and Youtube. Both sites now have the video back up after Saban and Kahn came to an agreement which is great for everyone involved, but it is the latest example of the somewhat treacherous grey area that is fan fiction.

Director Joseph Kahn launched into a tirade on his Twitter against Vimeo after they first removed the film, citing that the work was protected under fair use laws. It’s not the first time something like this has happened, and in the post-Kickstarter world many attempts were shut down over the issue of money, but this wasn’t Kickstarter funded nor does it make Kahn any money. By all accounts it is simply a passion project from a guy with connections and money.

Fan created works can be found across the internet, be it cosplays, artwork, writing, films or even merchandise, all varying between soul crushingly NSFW to fun little productions and everywhere in between. The fan-fiction world tends to exist on that thin line for the copyright owners. Even if the studios and companies are against the fan tributes and work, they recognise the potential backlash that can come from trying to intervene in a consumer driven world which has become accustomed and expectant of a certain freedom to participate and rework the media they love.

If money ever becomes intertwined with the production, the result is usually pretty open and shut. Warner Bros were quick to shut down Batgirl: Spoiled once that transitioned from a straight piece of fan film to a Kickstarter operation, while similar works were allowed to continue. In the case of Power/Rangers, it was all funded out of pocket, which gave Kahn at least some leverage in the initial disagreement

The fan community can drive the success or failure of a franchise, and it is a topic I plan on discussing in more depth in the near future on 1Up Culture. Take a show like Firefly, which after one underperforming season should have dissipated into the Hollywood void as another failed attempt at striking gold. The show still carries a measure of pop culture relevance to this day purely off of the backs of its fans. Those same fans drove up enough support for Joss Whedon to get the film ‘Serenity’ made, and for video games and comics to be made for the franchise twelve years after the show was debuted and subsequently finished.

That same community that continued to show their love and promote the show (for free) and bring in enough new fans to give the series ‘cult status’ produced fan work for the series. Some of that work may have crossed lines of copyright, but without such a passionate and dedicated fan circle the show would have become a forgotten example of a one season show. Did the show deserve just the one season? Of course not it’s brilliant, but that realistically should have been the end for it.

Now obviously in the case of Power Rangers we’re dealing with a slightly different situation. The show lasted a bit longer than one season. In fact the franchise continues through various rebrandings and series to this day. But the fan film has brought the franchise back into a certain level of pop relevancy that it had been lacking lately. Power/Rangers, which amassed millions of views before it was initially removed, brought the brand back into the cultural spotlight and got the internet talking about it, at least until people became enamoured over the colour of the dress. That exposure should have been good news for Saban, who have a Hollywood movie for the brand due out in 2016.

The initial reasoning behind Saban pursuing the removal of Power/Rangers wasn’t clear, but it begins to make more sense when you look at the details of the deal struck between Saban and Kahn. Age restrictions have been placed on the film as well as warnings as to the content found in the video. It seems no money has changed hands between the two, so the main concern seems to have been around the basis of the film. Compared to the highly children’s friendly content of the main series, Power/Rangers is very violent and contains far more adult content across the board. It seems Saban didn’t want people, particularly younger fans, accidentally associating the Power Rangers brand with this darker, gritty fan work which was achieving some measure of virality.

It is not just Saban. While many of the original actors from season 1 and 2 of Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers have stated that they liked the film, Green Ranger Jason David Frank was less positive, stating that “the cuss words, drugs, all this other stuff – it doesn’t fly with me.” Walter Jones, who played the first Black Ranger didn’t share the video because of it’s content and the amount of younger fans that follow him, although he enjoyed the darker take himself. While the series launched in the early 90’s and is fondly remembered by the adults the fan film is made for, the show still attracts younger viewers in its current iteration. The concern from Saban and some of the original Rangers seems to be as to the potential impact on the show’s current demographic, as well as their parents.

There was a potentially dangerous precedent that was set when Saban managed to get the film pulled from Vimeo and Youtube, given that Kahn had a viable argument for falling under the protection of fair use and parody work. There was no profit to be made from the work, outside of an increased awareness of Joseph Kahn and his work, so for the work to be shut down could have set the bar for other companies against their characters being used in passion projects. The good news is that the issue has been resolved, and while Saban has protected the image of the Power Rangers brand it doesn’t come at the expense of the internet community being able to enjoy the fan film.

How much would have the fan work damaged the Power Ranger brand? Probably not much if at all. There were no indications to suggest it was anything other than a fan’s take on a gritty reboot of the franchise. But the case could have been made that kids would have stumbled upon the film, especially given the online exposure it was receiving. That danger is alleviated to an extent now by age restrictions and warnings, although that’s assuming people have never lied about their age on the internet to access media… Now that the storm has cleared though, this is all essentially free advertising for the Power Rangers franchise, which is valuable since the upcoming movie is scheduled in a stacked 48 months of cinema. At least fans have the option of watching Power/Rangers again though.

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2 comments

  1. I remember a Stan’s Soapbox many years ago when the man himself declared that everybody had permission to draw their characters for practice and submission. For a media to remain healthy youngsters have to be inspired to practice, develop and cut their teeth on something familiar before they can become truly original.

    If I remember rightly Paramount started coming down hard on independent Star Trek websites many years ago. There was a big back-lash at such a foolish kind of attempt to make a franchise ‘exclusive’, something that can only be consumed and not inspire. The BBC for all their faults are very good with Doctor Who fans, one executive noting that many of the fan created videos which includes everything from recons to original title sequences is great promotional material for them. It only encourages interest. Of course the moment you start to make money they are on you.

    I saw a Punisher short film starring Tom Jane uploaded on You Tube in recent times and I thought it was very professional, very entertaining. I think part of the idea behind it was that Tom Jane would like to do another film in the title role. One of the more significant issues of the online streaming capacity of the internet is that the studio ‘system’ can be by-passed. Something good can get attention, not just if it gets studio approval. We’ve also seen I think insiders in the industry ‘leak’ things onto the net in recent times in order to get some popular traction.

    Fan produced material is the spice of the internet in my opinion. I also think it would be a very hard thing to police… if not counter-productive, although I doubt the bean counters in suits would actually be able to understand that argument.

    Like

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