Ultrasabers v. Phoenix Comicon | Contracts Matter

Lightsabers Long Exposure by Brian Neudorff from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Phoenix Comicon nearly started with a bang – literally. On the first day of the con, Mathew Sterling, arrived at the Phoenix Convention Center with a loaded shotgun, three handguns, and knives, allegedly intending to kill actor Jason David Frank and police officers. He was arrested and charged with attempted murder.

Following this incident, Phoenix Comicon changed its rule for the event and banned all prop weapons. Likewise, it instructed vendors who sell prop weapons to wrap them when completing a sale. This is where the problems between Ultrasabers and Phoenix Comicon began.

Ultrasabers sells replica lightsabers and was a repeat vendor at Phoenix Comicon. There was a dispute between the two, resulting in Phoenix Comicon demanding that Ultrasabers pack up their booth and vacate the premises on the Friday night of the con. It’s unclear exactly what transpired between these two companies. Ultrasabers and Phoenix Comicon each released a statement about this matter.

As a lawyer, one of my first thoughts when I heard about this situation was, “This is why contracts matter.” For full disclosure: I don’t represent either party in this matter. I didn’t write this vendor contract. I haven’t even seen it. I’m just an outsider looking in.

Contracts don’t exist for when things go right. Contracts exist for when things go wrong. A contract is a relationship management document; it helps prevent and/or solve problems between people in a relationship. It’s imperative that contracts are written with a thorough scope, and that the recipient review it thoughtfully before signing it, because if things take a downward turn, the contract will be the roadmap you rely on to achieve a resolution. Whenever a client or prospective client comes to me with a contract dispute, one of the first questions I ask is, “What does your contract say?” Footnote: The most common response I get to this question is, “We didn’t have one.”

In regards to Ultrasabers v. Phoenix Comicon, I don’t know what actually happened between the two or whether this situation is resolved at this point. I hope this issue was a reminder, or perhaps a wake-up call, to people who participate as a vendor or performer to read their contracts carefully before signing them. If you sign a contract and you later regret it, there may be nothing you can do to change the rules of that relationship at that point.

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The Legalities of having a Bat Signal

The Bat-Signal? by graphiclunarkid from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

The Bat-Signal? by graphiclunarkid from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I have the palette of a five year-old and a massive sweet tooth – especially for ice cream. I would love to have a bat signal – well something like it but only in the shape of an ice cream cone. I want to be able to turn my bat signal on and have multiple people calling and texting to ask “What flavor?”

Unfortunately, bat signals are illegal in Arizona. I was driving around this past December with a friend who remarked that a business that had moving spotlights pointing up at the sky was violating of a city ordinance. This inspired me to be a legal geek and look up why bat signals are illegal in the Arizona criminal laws and the Phoenix city ordinances. Here’s what I came up with.

2012-12-14-0473 by Al Pavangkanan from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

2012-12-14-0473 by Al Pavangkanan from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Disorderly Conduct (Class 1 Misdemeanor)
Disorderly conduct is a catch-all law written to apply to activities that the powers that be dislike but where there isn’t a specific law on point. The Arizona disorderly conduct law prohibits excessive noise, but not excessive light. The law does prohibit “fighting, violent or seriously disruptive behavior,” but there may be an argument that a bat signal may be disruptive, but it shouldn’t be treated as being in the same category as physical violence.

Public Nuisance (Class 2 Misdemeanor)
I think this is what you might get if your neighbors call the cops on you. In Arizona it’s illegal to do anything that is “injurious to health, indecent, offensive to the senses or an obstruction to the free use of property that interferes with the comfortable enjoyment of life or property by an entire community or neighborhood or by a considerable number of persons.” If your bat signal is so bright that it interferes with your neighbors’ ability to enjoy their property, it could be illegal.

Criminal Nuisance (Class 3 Misdemeanor)
In Arizona, a criminal nuisance is “conduct either unlawful in itself or unreasonable under the circumstances,” such as a person who “recklessly creates or maintains a condition which endangers the safety or health of others.” I could see law enforcement making a strong argument that turning on a bat signal could be hazardous to other’s safety, especially if it limits people’s ability to see or disrupt traffic on the streets or in the air.

The City of Phoenix has city ordinances that require outdoor lighting to be shielded and/or filtered – including spotlights. The City also has rules against disturbing the peace or creating a nuisance that is “offensive to the senses.” The rules for using a searchlight say you can’t have one within 150 feet of a residential structure, that it can only be used between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m., and it can’t contain any advertising. I don’t think my bat signal is advertising because I’d use to get people to bring me ice cream, not to sell anything.

I suspect if you want to have a bat signal, you’d have to get a permit to use it only for a special event and then after that it could only be used for show. The Phoenix rules require you to file for a permit at least 45 days in advance. I can’t plan my ice cream cravings out that far. It’s too bad – it would have been awesome to have a bat signal.

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Should Star Wars Fans Fear Disney Cease & Desist Letters?

Yoda statue outside Lucasfilm - The Presidio by kennejima from Flickr

Yoda statue outside Lucasfilm – The Presidio by kennejima from Flickr

May 4th is Star Wars Day. May the 4th be with you! In light of this geeky holiday and the fact that I will be speaking about the legalities of fan fiction and fan art at Phoenix Comicon this year, I’ve been thinking about what the impact of the Disney buying Lucasfilm in 2012 will have on Star Wars fans.

George Lucas was known for encouraging fans to create fan art and fan fiction. This is an expression of love for Star Wars and gives fans a chance to connect in new ways. In contrast, Disney is known for sending cease and desist letters when they find that a day care or school shows Disney films or if a child-centered business has a mural of Disney characters painted on the wall.

I tell my fellow geeks who want to create fan art or fan fiction to do their research on whose work they want to emulate to see if the copyright holder will be likely to come after them if they discover what they’ve created. I haven’t heard of any Star Wars fans receiving a cease and desist letter from Disney since they’ve acquired Lucasfilm. I’ve sent a message to Disney corporate office asking about their official policy regarding Star Wars fan art and fan fiction.

If you get a cease and desist letter from Disney for your Star Wars fan fiction or fan art, you could try to make an argument that you’re not committing copyright infringement because what you created is protected by the concept of fair use. This is part of the Copyright Act that permits people to add original and transformative content to existing works. This law protects things like parodies.

Never forget that fair use is a defense, not a permission slip. To make a valid fair use argument, the copyright holder will sue you for infringement and then you’ll have to demonstrate to the court that your work qualifies as fair use. The court will consider four main factors:

  1. Purpose and character of your use of another’s work (Are you transforming the original?)
  2. Nature of the copyrighted work you’re copying
  3. Amount and substantiality of the copyrighted work used
  4. Effect on the market (Is your work a substitute for the original?)

This is somewhat a dangerous quest to take on. The general rule is “Disney never loses” when it comes to legal battles. I know of only person who fought Disney and won in a copyright situation.

If you create fan art or fan fiction or are considering creating original work based on an existing work and need to understand the legal risks that accompany your work, please contact a copyright attorney in your community. You can also check out my book The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed for my thoughts on fair use.

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Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.