Behind the Screens - By Eric Buchman
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Where’s the line between fan-fic and copyright infringement? Ask the Power Rangers

On Monday night, a fan-made Power Rangers video stormed the Internet, racking up millions of views in less than a day.

That’s a familiar story. But you know what else it racked up in less than a day? Threats of legal action. Haim Saban, the billionaire owner of the Power Rangers franchise, is forcing sites like Vimeo to take down the video.

That’s actually rare for fan-made videos, which have been making their way around the Internet since the days of dial-up – usually without ruffling any corporate feathers . The fans over at Star Trek Continues have produced four full-length Star Trek episodes of their own. Lucasfilm officially backs an annual competition just for Star Wars fan videos. Every video game character you can think of has been given the narrative video treatment by fans.

So why did the fans behind Power/Rangers piss off Haim Saban so much?

Probably because the video was too good.

‘Til now, rights holders have mostly allowed fan videos to prosper for three reasons:

  1. They aren’t made for profit.
  2. They tend to have a “home-made” quality that won’t get them confused for the real thing.
  3. Rights holders would look like dicks to go after them.

One look at the Twitter feed of the film’s director and you’ll see multiple posts that attest this was not a for-profit venture.

He wrote those tweets after Vimeo pulled the video at the request of Saban Brands. But get this: Vimeo had the video as a “Staff Pick” before they pulled it. So clearly Vimeo thought it was OK before Saban insisted otherwise. Joseph Kahn even goes out of his way to assert that every frame of the video is an entirely original creation:

And Kahn is absolutely right on both counts. It isn’t made for profit. It doesn’t include any copyrighted material. He does have some legal ground to stand on.

But so does Haim Saban.

There’s nothing “home-made” about that video. The fans who made it are working Hollywood professionals. The cast and crew have long lists of credits – really good credits! The reason why Power/Rangers now faces legal threats are two-fold.

First, it’s so well-made, one could make an argument that it’s actually competing with — and over-shadowing — the main brand. Second, Haim Saban clearly doesn’t mind looking like a dick.

So what happens next? The fact that the video still exists on YouTube is telling. Google must have received the same takedown requests that Vimeo got, but hasn’t acted on them. Considering how quickly YouTube usually takes things down, that means its moderators don’t see clear-cut infringement. And more importantly, neither do YouTube’s lawyers.

This is clearly one genie that can never truly go back in the bottle.

Further, if Saban were to make good on his threats of legal action, I’m not entirely sure what he’d go for. The producers haven’t monetized the video, so it’s not like Saban can try to seize that money. Saban could sue for damages, but good luck proving the impact of a YouTube video on the bottom line of any current or future Power Rangers productions. His most legitimate lawsuit would simply force the video to be taken down, but you know who he’d have to sue to do that? Google. Yeah, good luck with that.

I suppose Saban Brands could sue the producers to assume copyright of the video, claiming it owns the underlying material, and therefore owns the expression of it. But then what? To make any money off the video, the company would have to release it on its own, which it obviously doesn’t want to do. It would basically be going through a lot of trouble and expense simply to shelve it entirely, and it’s probably too late for that. This is clearly one genie that can never truly go back in the bottle.

All that said, I do sympathize with Saban on one thing: If I had dedicated fans who turned out “fan movies” way better than anything I ever produced, I’d be pretty pissed, too.