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The Vader Project

There is a new exhibit at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh titled The Vader Project, and I’d love to know whether any of it was cleared through George Lucas and Lucasfilm.  From the exhibition website:

100 Reimagined Darth Vader helmets complete
Premiering at The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Show runs February 13 — May 3, 2009

The Vader Project – a reimagining of the iconic Darth Vader helmet by some of today’s hottest underground and pop surrealist painters, artists and designers – makes its museum premiere and will be on display February 13 — May 3, 2009 at The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania.

The Vader Project is curated by Dov Kelemer & Sarah Jo Marks of DKE Toys. Kelemer and Marks gathered 100 contemporary artists. Each artist was given a 1:1 scale authentic prop replica of the actual Darth Vader helmet used in the STAR WARS films. Each helmet served as a blank slate for each artist to paint, design, mash up and customize.

Featuring work by Shag, Peter Kuper, Attaboy, Gary Baseman, Tim Biskup, Dalek, Paul Frank, Ron English, Jeff Soto, Michelle Valigura, Frank Kozik, Wade Lageose, Joe Ledbetter, Alex Pardee, Suckadelic, Cameron Tiede, Mister Cartoon, Marc Ecko, Amanda Visell and many more, The Vader Project provided an opportunity for artists to use one of the most iconic pop culture characters in film history as their canvas.

“It’s because of trailblazing artists like Andy Warhol that The Vader Project can even exist today. We couldn’t be more honored to be showcasing The Vader Project at the Warhol.” says Kelemer.

The Vader Project originally premiered at Star Wars Celebration IV in Los Angeles in May 2007. From there it traveled to Star Wars Celebration Europe in London in June 2007. July 2007 brought 10 new helmets to the Star Wars Pavilion at the famed San Diego Comi-Con International. Then in July 2008, 13 Japanese artists joined forces with the existing Vader Project when their helmets premiered at Star Wars Celebration Japan.

Dov Kelemer & Sarah Jo Marks are Co-Curators The Vader Project and Co-Founders of DKE Toys, one of the largest designer vinyl and art-toy distributors in the world, exclusively representing over 100 companies, artists, and designers. Kelemer started the business selling Star Wars memorabilia more than 15 years ago. With The Vader Project he has finally found a way to meld both his passions. Marks divides her time between managing DKE art exhibitions and all DKE promotions including STUFFED: a plush food show. …

STAR WARS and related properties are trademarks and/or copyrights, in the United States and other countries, of Lucasfilm Ltd. and/or its affiliates. TM & © Lucasfilm Ltd. All rights reserved. All other trademarks and trade names are properties of their respective owners.

The story up to a point is a fun bit of user-generated fair use in copyright and trademark law.  Even if the art and the exhibit weren’t cleared through Lucasfilm, my view is that the artists and the museum are on solid legal ground.

What got my attention, however, was the coverage of the exhibit that appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  In addition to a standard story about the art and the artists, both print and online versions of the paper included a “blank” two-dimensional rendering of the Vader helmet (Lucasfilm copyright and trademark notice included) with an invitation to “create your own” (the online link reads:  “PG download: Here’s your chance to use your artistic talents on Darth Vader (.pdf format)“).

On reflection, I don’t see a problem with what the newspaper did.  But — and again let’s assume that the paper didn’t clear rights to the 2-D image — the analysis isn’t quite so simple.  Sure, if I were to buy a Star Wars coloring book, I could create a colorful derivative version of Darth Vader’s helmet and be well within my fair use (and/or implied license) rights.  At one level, the Post-Gazette has done nothing more than enable its readers to make equivalent non-infringing uses.  But at that same level, the PG is competing with the comic book publishers.  Is it a direct infringer?  It’s difficult to characterize the paper’s use of the copyrighted image as “news reporting” under Section 107.   Hmmm.  As if newspapers didn’t already have enough things to worry about. …