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Lucasfilm takes flak from fan page builders

Some fans are indignant over a provision in the film studio's home page user contract that gives Lucasfilm sole control of the original designs people post on their fan sites.

Is Lucasfilm being influenced by the dark side in the way it governs its "Star Wars" Web site?

Some angry fans are protesting policies the film studio has outlined in its user agreement regarding a new feature on StarWars.com that allows people to build fan pages hosted on the site. The service, which launched earlier this month and is powered by home page builder Homstead.com, lets fans post images of "Star Wars" characters and creatures.

The protesters are indignant over a provision in the contract's language that gives Lucasfilm sole control of the original designs people post on their fan sites. The studio's reins extend to "derivative works"--meaning that any content a person creates, from a picture of a Wookie to a plot line in a short story, becomes the property of Lucasfilm.

"This action by Lucasfilm does not connote respect...because it empowers Lucasfilm to more effectively regulate what fans can and cannot do, particularly if they have their sites on 'fan.starwars.com,'" a fan wrote on a site protesting the StarWars.com contract.

The issue involves a sticky debate over intellectual property limits on the Web. Companies that allow Net users to create content usually have terms of service explaining that people can post what they want as long as it's not offensive in nature or threatening to others.

But when companies such as Lucasfilm--which profit on creativity--want to allow fans to build online communities, controlling intellectual property may come with more restrictions on what people can and cannot do.

Lucasfilm has been notoriously protective of its copyrights and content online. Early this year, the company sent a letter to a Web designer asking him to relinquish the domain name Tatooine.com. Tatooine was the fictional desert planet where "Star Wars" character Luke Skywalker was raised.

And last year, before the much-hyped official debut of the "Star Wars: Episode I" movie preview, Lucasfilm sent letters to hundreds of Internet service providers warning that it would crack down on outlets that allowed unauthorized copies of the preview to be distributed online.

The StarWars.com fan page terms of service reads: "You hereby grant to us the right to exercise all intellectual property rights, in any media now known or not currently known, with respect to any content you place on your Homestead-powered Web site."

Lucasfilm spokeswoman Lynne Hale said the language is standard. For a company whose business is based around the creation of original characters and story lines, the contract is one way of preventing future legal hassles in which outsiders might contest that Lucasfilm was stealing their ideas, she said.

"We want fans to be able to use all of our images," Hale said. "But if they do a drawing of what (they think) Boba Fett is going to look like, and there's any similarity, we need to be guaranteed that we own the copyright, because they're all derivative of our original design."

Lucasfilm is not the only company that has come under fire for its intellectual property policies. Last summer, Yahoo was the target of a boycott after members of its GeoCities home page community discovered that the Web giant was forcing people to agree to contractual terms that gave it control over all content created on the service.

Protesters feared that, under the new terms of service, Yahoo could have turned their posted material into movies or other electronic forms of entertainment to which they would have no rights.

Yahoo eventually modified its terms of service in response to the protests.

Last year, the property rights issue flared up between Sony Music and its artists over a provision in the record label's contracts that effectively asked artists to sign away control of their official Web sites for life.

A Sony representative at the time said the company would not comment on artists' contracts. But intellectual property experts said that requiring artists to sign away their URLs reflected a fear at Sony that it could lose control over its artists through the Web.