The power of the force: does Powershop’s latest ad cross the line?

Powershop’s ‘Same Power, Different Attitude‘ campaign by DoubleFish was well-received by the StopPressers when it was launched in July. And, while some offense and distress led to the images of Kim Jong Il and Saddam Hussein being removed from the campaign, it’s continued down a similar creative path with its follow-up ads. But we received an email from a reader wondering if its latest effort had also gone a bit too far. 

You’ve probably been reasonably amused (as I have) by the various “Same Power, Different Attitude” executions for Power Shop. Nice campaign. However, I think they’ve just strayed into unfortunate territory with their latest ad, featuring Darth Vader in full Sound of Music mode. Nothing wrong with the idea, but I don’t think Lucasfilm will find it quite as heartwarming. Parody for entertainment purposes is one thing, but when one strays into using other peoples’ trademarks for commercial gain, senses of humour get a little strained. Perhaps a word of warning to your audience about Intellectual Property is in order?

Powershop’s Simon Coley says it did think hard about the IP issue and sought legal advice on it. But its research showed a number of other companies had used images of Darth Vader, so they went ahead with showing the personification of evil prancing around as Julie Andrews.

“We think it’s good parody,” he says.

Anecdotally, he says people have been trying to guess what will come next in the campaign, which is a good thing and, along with the potential for causing offense with the use of real despots and demagogues, it moved into the realm of fictional characters (it’s also done one featuring Jaws doing stunts at the aquarium). But doing so means it runs the risk of treading on the toes of some notoriously litigious companies.

So what are the rules? According to one legal boffin we spoke with, the term ‘trade marked’ is often used inappropriately. In this case it’s unlikely the image of Darth Vadar is a trade mark but it is possibly subject to copyright protection.

That said, it is likely the poster featuring Darth Vadar qualifies as an original work for copyright protection and it has not been copied, so there would be no offence there.

In New Zealand, the only other causes of action that immediately spring to mind would be breach of the Fair Trading Act and/or passing off but that would probably be hard to prove given the clear connection to Powershop rather than Lucas Industries.

It seems there’s very little law in New Zealand around parody. But a basic rule of thumb is that it should not be overly aggressive or offensive, which may fall foul of defamation and/or human rights laws, and it shouldn’t reproduce substantial parts of copyright works.

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