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This weekend, just down the road from Downhill Battle HQ in Worcester, MA is FANZILLACON, a giant fan film festival and the first one that’s been held in the United States. Fan films are homemade (but increasingly professional-looking) movies based on Hollywood movies. The Fanzillacon Fan Film Showcase will give you the idea. As you might have guessed, fan films and fan fiction can run into some tricky copyright situations. There are a lot of parallels to sampling in music, for example.

Many copyright holders, like George Lucas (Star Wars), are very flexible about fan fiction and films because it keeps their biggest customers happy. That’s fine, to a certain extent, but there are two troubling issues that it presents. The first is practical: what happens when fan fiction or film is unflattering to the original work? What happens is that the lawyers come out in force. So while the system works ok in benign situations, it breaks down right when things are getting interesting and when free speech is at stake. Which brings us to a second, more general concern: any system that allows copyright holders to selectively enforce copyright based on their own commercial interests, is going to have chilling effetcs and be bad for innovation. Selective enforcement is more insidious than an absolute prohibition because the appearance of flexibility makes it unlikely that there will be strong push for real Congressional consideration of the issues at stake. It seems pretty clear that non-commercial works inspired by other works do not discourage innovation or creativity (the goals that copyright is intended to protect) and should, therefore, be a part of our cultural stew. You know you’re glad that TROOPS exists.

Even if you’ve never heard of fans films, we really recommend coming to Fanzillacon if you live near Worcester, if only because there will be so many people there who are more excited about this event than anything they’ve ever been too– and that will be something to see. Nick and Holmes and other Downhill Battle associates are definitely going to stop by to see what’s going on. Maybe we’ll see you by the green screen special effects dojo, featuring Star Trek characters battling Star Wars characters (seriousy, I’m not making this up).

For more background, here’s an article about copyright and fan films that gets at some of the key issues and here’s another about the Harry Potter website crackdown.

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