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'I almost got sued for knitting a Firefly hat': The legal risks of pop-culture fan art

Leah Yamshon | July 22, 2013
How intellectual-property squabbles over fan-made crafts are alienating fan communities.

Fans are cunning
Stephanie Lucas was named in a large intellectual-property suit against fan crafters involving a simple, knitted, three-colored cap. Jayne Cobb (played by Adam Baldwin) wore such a bright red, orange, and yellow hat in one episode of Fox's short-lived sci-fi series. Cobb was a trigger-happy, rough-and-tumble character, but his not-so-intimidating chullo belied a softer side—his mother made it, so he wore it proudly. The hat quickly became a Firefly symbol, if you will, and it also was a fan-crafter's dream: easy to make, but not readily available, as no official version was for sale.

Firefly gained a huge fan following after it dropped off the air in 2002, but because it had seen little commercial success, fans had no official merchandise to scoop up. So devotees turned to the Internet—namely, to Etsy—and to fan conventions to share these handcrafted hats with like-minded souls.Firefly continued to amass a huge underground following, and now—more than ten years after the show was cancelled—the series has gained enough traction to make Fox, the original producer, take notice. Earlier in 2013, Fox licensed retailer Ripple Junction to mass-produce, distribute, and sell the Jayne hat through online catalog ThinkGeek.


NERDCORPS.COM'. Firefly' fans can easily spot one another, thanks to these caps.

In late March and early April 2013, shops on Etsy that sold the fan-made hats received cease-and-desist letters, after the deal between ThinkGeek and Fox's licensed retailer was finalized.

"I got the notice on March 28," Lucas says. "I remember how it felt like the world had just stopped: More than 70 percent of my sales are Jayne hats."

Another Etsy shop owner, Jessa, received a similar letter. "I got scared because I thought they might sue me," she says. (We've omitted Jessa's last name to protect her shop; she continues to sell the offending hats.) Both sellers took down their listings initially. They, like so many others, felt that they had no choice.

At first, people pointed fingers at ThinkGeek, but representatives of the online catalog insist that the company played no part in the legal challenges. "ThinkGeek had nothing to do with the C&D notices... Would the C&D's have happened if we did not carry the hat on our site? We're not sure; we'll leave that question to sharper legal minds than ours," wrote ThinkGeek's Carrie in an official statement.

Droves of Firefly fans and crafters turned to the Web to express their disappointment and anger at Fox butting in, after remaining silent and uninterested in Firefly for years. "Why would Fox care about people making these hats for a show that's been off the air for ten years? A show that they cancelled before the first season was over? A hat that appeared in one episode that didn't even air?" says Lucas.

 

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