For more than a decade, fans have been knitting in relative silence, making little tokens for their favorite canceled show. Last week, that all began to change.
FOX studios, who own the Intellectual Property rights for Firefly and Serenity; the television show created by Joss Whedon and the follow-up fan-driven movie he wrote four years after the show was canceled, have begun to send out Cease and Desist letters to independent sellers of the knit cap worn by Adam Baldwin’s character on the show, Jayne Cobb.
The hat appeared for only one episode, which was not originally even aired. The episode was included in the DVD set for Firefly but never aired with the series on FOX in 2002. After the movie Serenity came out in 2005, the fans – or “Browncoats,” the preferred nomenclature – wanted a way to continue to enjoy the movie beyond just buying a copy like they had with Firefly. Joss Whedon, the show’s creator, has been an outspoken feminist in Hollywood for a couple of decades now, which is a true rarity. He often credits this to the way his family and mother raised him; to see women as equals. He has not ever shied away from writing strong female characters, from his early days writing for Roseanne the semi-biographical show co-written with Roseanne Barr. He wrote the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer and created her character; which he personally still retains the IP rights to.
When it comes to the IP ownership over the Firefly/Serenity universe however, it is FOX who owns it. FOX began their relationship with the series under stressed circumstances. There were production arguments over filming in formatted or widescreen (Whedon chose to do both, using the widescreen for the eventual DVD release, and complying with FOX broadcast’s request for a formatted version to air over television), over the development of the characters, and even required a complete pilot re-write in two days. Whedon complied, and for three months in 2002, FOX aired 11 of the 14 filmed episodes, including the “new” pilot, which Whedon placed in his preferred order after his two-part pilot for the DVD set.
The fans, already dedicated after only a few aired episodes, begged FOX to reconsider its cancellation.
At that time, FOX had also cancelled another quasi-popular show with a fan/cult base, Family Guy, twice, for a period after ratings decline in 2000, and again in 2002. The FG fans, much like the Browncoats, pushed hard for DVD releases and bought them by the hundreds of thousands. FOX made no pretense as to why, in 2004, it picked Family Guy back up for new episodes.
With Firefly, after the cancellation, it was all fan-based. In less than two years after the DVD series release, Firefly had sold over a half-million copies and was consistently a top seller at Amazon.com. Despite fan, crew, cast, and producers pleading with Twentieth Century FOX, the company passed on the follow-up movie Whedon had written to continue the characters. In 2003, Whedon had a meeting with Universal Pictures, who quickly greenlit the project. The movie deal was confirmed in 2003 and released in theaters in September 2005. The fans could not have been happier.
It was around this time, the release of Serenity, that the knit caps/Cunning Caps began to appear on the heads of fans. By early 2006 at the request of Browncoat fans, Universal allowed the film to be screened yearly as a benefit; with the money raised from the showing of the film to go to Equality Now. Originally named “Equality Now/Serenity Now,” the showings would happen in the summer between Whedon’s birthday in June, and the film’s original release date in September. Formally re-named “Can’t Stop the Serenity” in 2007, the fundraisers often had private auctions at the events to raise additional funds. While there were some officially licensed merchandise to purchase: water bottles, posters, Kaylee’s umbrella, perhaps the most popular item would be the hand-knit Cunning Caps. With each additional year and screening, the caps became more and more a common symbol of the Browncoat fandom.
However, as popular as it was to wear at the CSTS screenings, only the movie rights had been purchased from FOX by Universal. FOX still retained the IP rights to everything from Firefly, including the cap.
Legally, it is a clear case that FOX owns the IP to Firefly and related merchandise. However, there are some gray areas. IP rights are often hard fought for a reason; the rights can be lost if the owner chooses to not pursue people who infringe on the IP, or if the IP goes undefended for a period of years. Example; Disney is quite litigious over the IP rights of its cartoon characters, such as Mickey and Minnie Mouse; because if they were not, they could lose IP rights to own the characters.
FOX however, did nothing about the hand-knit caps being produced and sold; either to individual fans, or at gatherings like CSTS or various ComicCons where the caps were often sold to fans or for charity benefits, for the last ten years. There have been several different companies granted rights by FOX to officially license Firefly material, but until late 2012 there was no mass market company that produced or offered the caps. Perhaps because from the fans to Whedon, it was agreed that the cap was “tangible… ‘Do It Yourself.‘”
FOX sold a Firefly license to a third party dealer; Ripple Junction, as discussed in my previous article. However, what was actually manufactured was a mass-market produced machine manufactured cap. The spirit and personality of the hat, a large reason why it was so popular, was the hand-made sense of it. The cap worn on the show was hand-knit. The caps being produced by Browncoats and Etsy sellers were hand-knit. They were inspired by the cap worn on the show, but for more than ten years made up by the fans. There was no “official” cap in 2003, and no “official” pattern to use or to license. Most of all the caps are different in some way; the yarn, the coloring, the stitches, the pom or ear-flaps. As the cap worn by Jayne Cobb was sent by his mother, the greater sense was it was a cap made with love for a woman’s son who was far away from home. To mass produce identical machine-made caps representing a mother’s hand-knit cap for her child is about as far away from the intention of the item as can be made. This is not a case of a big retailer making piles of cashy-money for stealing a design idea from a cult popular but long cancelled show. This is FOX paying a legal team thousands and thousands of dollars to (questionably) threaten individual sellers into stopping their work. This is FOX spending money to fight the very symbol of one of their cancelled shows.
This is FOX again, trying to send the message that money and legal power will always win.
This is FOX saying this to the fans of a show about (essentially) space pirates who fight against large corporations and steal for the individuals, the poor, the forgotten.
Firefly was not a long lasting series like Star Trek. However, if the comic conventions of late have shown anything, it is that the Firefly fans are numerous and still growing. Yet, unlike CBS Studios, who own the IP to the Star Trek series, and who often encourage (or actively not sue) their fans to make and share ST material, FOX wants only one type of Jayne Cap sold: the kind that makes them money. To be sure, if this were truly about defending the IP for Firefly, FOX would have made an issue of the caps long ago, before ThinkGeek began to sell FOX’s licensed cap through their site.
Now, the Browncoats are again uniting; but not for a specific charity as they so often do. The Browncoats in Firefly marched off to fight an un-winnable battle against the larger Alliance.
The fandom Browncoats might likely march against the next move FOX makes; with their words and blogs, or what will likely affect FOX’s lack of heart and compassion more – by holding closed their wallets to purchasing anything from FOX.
FOX perhaps, is in for a bigger fight than they thought. FOX, one would think by now, would have learned to not poke with a sharp stick the very people they are trying to get money or loyalty from.