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Previously in Web Citations:

All Crime, All the Time

An online news site gives the people what they want.

Cutting-Edge Coupons

The digital revolution comes to a supermarket near you.

Not Your Father's Antiwar Movement

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Someone Who Cares Wants You to Know

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Wheeling and Dealing

It all comes down to this: Would you buy a used (or new) car from these Web sites?

Lifetime Achievement

Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999) was a filmmaker who kept his distance from Hollywood. His vision appears ever more original -- and lonely.

Modem Bride

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Be Fruitful and Multiply

When it comes to modern reproductive technology, many are turning to the Web for a helping hand.

Democratic Vistas

"I sing the body electric," Walt Whitman wrote. Little did he know what he was prophesying.

See the complete Web Citations Index.

Menace to Society
May 19, 1999

"It's only a movie."

So responded George Lucas at a press conference in early May when asked about the hype surrounding the long-awaited release of Star Wars: Episode One: The Phantom Menace. Sage words. Yoda could hardly have said it better. Yet what did they mean? Was this a preemptive attempt to appease the corporations suffering lost productivity and strained bandwidth in the wake of the prequel trailer release? Was it an honestly puzzled response to the hordes of fans and eBay addicts who waited outside Toys-R-Us at midnight on May 3 to secure their very own Darth Maul figures? Or perhaps a nod to exasperated citizens dismayed to find news of Naboo generating more interest than news of NATO?

One thing at least is clear: The Star Wars craze has long since taken on a life of its own. Even so, earlier this month LucasFilm made a vague attempt to bully Internet Service Providers into policing illegal copyright infringement by Phantom Menace fan sites. In a form letter sent to hundreds of Internet providers in early May, LucasFilm invoked last year's Digital Millenium Copyright Act, warning ISPs against harboring any "unauthorized electronic files relating to the upcoming film Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace." The letter further stated that "extremely prompt action will be required to avoid the spread of infringing materials" -- and, presumably, a lawsuit, since according to the new law, ISPs can be sued if they fail to counteract "specific" incidences of copyright violation after being notified in writing of their existence.

"Specific" incidences may be asking a little much. Given that there are now more than 1,700 Star Wars-related fan sites on the Web, it's no wonder LucasFilm opted to shift the burden of discovery to the ISPs. Sending a blanket form letter in lieu of personalized cease-and-desist notices detailing all potential offenders -- from Skywalker Academy on Yavin 4 to the Build Your Own Boba Fett site -- is a lot easier. It would take a small army of paralegals to catalogue all the unlicensed Star Wars material available on fan sites Web-wide -- and an even larger army of spin doctors to orchestrate the damage-control once the evil corporate empire began crushing its adoring subjects under the treads of its legal machine. It would be a little like the Catholic Church readying itself to excommunicate pilgrims who traffic in unauthorized relics.

From the looks of the sidewalk vigils taking place in front of theaters across America, the religious-pilgrim metaphor may not be too far-fetched. But while the quasi-religious themes that underlie the films have remained the same, the cultural climate into which they are being projected has changed dramatically. In 1977 the "empire" was political; in 1999 it's economic. When Star Wars debuted, the Soviet Union was secure in its role as our arch-enemy, and corporations were struggling to move out of the decade's economic recession. Now, NATO is struggling to play the heavy against rogue states, and corporations are consolidating their almost absolute control over the global economy. And whereas the film is almost sure to disappoint fans jaded by celebrity culture and the orthodoxy of ever-evolving high-tech special effects, LucasFilm's new role as the Darth Vader of copyright enforcement may ultimately succeed in giving fans a real menace to rebel against. If Lucas has a problem with that, fans may remind him: It's only a movie.

--Gina Hahn

Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.

More on Technology and Digital Culture in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Gina Hahn is The Atlantic Monthly's special projects editor.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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