Universal v. Universal

Copyrights and viral marketing


Last year Universal Studios decided to hype its movie Serenity by tapping the cult following of Firefly, the TV show that spawned the film. It hired Special Ops Media, a viral marketing company that specializes in creating buzz among bloggers, fan sites, and bulletin board communities. The firm sent out thousands of "assets"-still shots and graphics from the movie, bumper stickers, review copies, trailers, and other promotional items-and encouraged fans and bloggers to use the assets to promote the picture, including using photos and graphics from the movies to create stickers, gift cards, and T-shirts.

Someone forgot to tell the studio lawyers. Months later, in October 2006, Universal started sending cease-and-desist letters to those same bloggers and fan sites, threatening legal action for copyright violations. One fan was sent a bill for $8,250 in "retroactive licensing fees" for using the word "Serenity" on T-shirts he sold at cost on the webstore Café Press. His letter also demanded that he "agree in writing to permanently cease and desist from the advertising, promoting, marketing, sale or distribution of any products bearing or referring to Universal Property." Of course, the marketing firm that Universal hired had encouraged him to do precisely the opposite.

Their free labor rejected, the viral marketers kept their sense of humor. They set up a mock website to generate "retroactive invoices" fans could send to Universal for the use of their marketing services.