Prop Etiquette 

Prop making and collecting fall in a somewhat grey area legally because of potential copyright and trademark issues. Nevertheless, most studios and other intellectual property rights holders recognize and tolerate noncommercial prop making and collecting as legitimate expressions of fandom. And for the most part, these rights holders will even tolerate a modest level of commerce among prop and costume enthusiasts, inasmuch as these activities fill an otherwise unmet desire on the part of hardcore fans, which keeps interest in studio entertainment properties alive. But such an enlightened attitude was not always the norm. 

In the mid-1990s, Viacom Corporation found that its efforts to suppress Star Trek fan websites, and amateur costume and prop enthusiasts, created a public relations fiasco that substantially eroded the good will of hardcore fans. And to this day, Warner Bros. remains mostly intolerant of such activities. Of all the major studios, Lucasfilm Ltd. is perhaps the shrewdest when it comes to handling these issues, and invariably strikes an appropriate balance between protecting its legitimate economic interests and permitting hardcore Star Wars enthusiasts to indulge their desire for fan-made costumes and replicas. 

As a part of this unspoken understanding between the fans and the studios, it is expected that neither side will take advantage of the other's good will. For their part, the studios are expected to exercise restraint and not unleash their lawyers on enthusiastic fans. But it is only fair that this restraint cuts both ways. It is often difficult to divine when prop collecting crosses the line from implicitly encouraged fandom to actionable infringement. Again, a modest level of collector-to-collector commerce should be (and to a large extent is) tolerated, because it fills an unmet desire, and allows talented artisans to defray their r&d costs. But like many other aspects of life, appearances are important. 

Keeping a low profile when it comes to fan commerce is not about deception, but rather is a sign of respect for the rights holder. Conversely, blatantly advertising and selling replicas comes off as flouting the rules, and may give the impression that the prop maker is trying to make an illegitimate profit off of unauthorized activities. Finding the right balance is a delicate and usually uncertain exercise. To reduce the risk of misperception and potentially unpleasant consequences, collectors should be subtle and discreet in their own dealings. Most importantly, do not review or promote an artisan's work without his consent. It is terribly unfair to expose another individual to unanticipated consequences. 

Finally, it is poor form and invariably counterproductive to badmouth the studios when they do act to protect their legitimate interests. Fans do have a legitimate stake in the entertainment properties they love, but this stake should never be confused with ownership or control.

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