A few weeks back, the fine folks at Cultural Compulsive Disorder (one of my favorite pop-culture blogs, by the way) decided that it would be cool to show all six Star Wars movies in their favorite bar. They were going to make a thing out of this -- they put up flyers, and so on. Come to the bar, buy drinks or snacks or whatever, and watch Star Wars for free.
Unfortunately -- but, I think, fairly predictably -- Lucasfilm caught wind of this and issued a cease-and-desist letter. Now, they got their details wrong, thinking that this was to be a charged-admission event, but still, the writing was on the wall: No public screening of Star Wars without permission. Naturally, this didn't go over well with the CCD guys, although they are complying.
Cal (of Canadian Cave fame) commented on this, and I left the following comment (slightly revised) in response.
Firstly, there's an awful lot of blasting of Lucas personally here and on CCD. I suspect that Lucas in all likelihood personally knows absolutely nothing about this whole affair, and that this is the work of a legal department and nothing else. And the fact is, this isn't an abnormal thing to happen. It may suck, but it's not unheard-of or out of the blue.
Here's a true story. I work at a big grocery store, as you may know, which is part of a pretty large chain in the Northeast US. A couple of years ago, someone at corporate thought it would be cool to have "Movie Nights" on Fridays in our cafe's. We'd show a movie in the cafe, something "family friendly", the idea being that parents would bring their kids to watch the movie and maybe buy a meal or two to eat in the cafe. I'm not sure how it's worked out in terms of increasing sales, but it's worked fairly well at least as far as getting people to come watch the movies.
Some stores show their movies on a large flatscreen teevee, but the fellow who was store manager at the time had a "Go big or go home" type of philosophy, so at his command, we went all out. We bought a commercial corn popper. Two dozen bean-bag chairs to be put out for kids to use. A large carpet to roll out (our cafe's floor is quarry tile). And for screening? We installed a 16' by 9' screen, a ceiling-mounted projector, and a home-theater sound system with five surround speakers and a subwoofer. (I got to install all that, along with the help of another guy. It was actually a really fun project to do.) Attendance at our movie nights has been hit-or-miss (we do one or two a month, packing 'em in sometimes and not so much other times), but for quality of the set-up, we're top-notch.
But about six months ago, we got a letter from the MPAA. They weren't telling us to stop, but they were notifying us that since we (the company, not my store specifically) were screening movies for more than 25 people at once, this constituted a "public screening", and thus, we had to pay for the privelege. So now, the company must pay some money to the MPAA every time one of our stores has a movie night. It's not a huge amount -- our company can easily afford it -- but still, those are the rules. Oh, and there was one other rule: No screening of Disney movies is allowed. Period. And that includes Pixar, unfortunately. Disney, apparently, said "No free screenings of our films."
None of this is meant to be a defense of Lucasfilm's reaction, but, unfortunately, that's the lay of the land, and has been for quite some time. In all honesty, I do think that the fine folks at CCD should, when dreaming this idea up, have contacted Lucasfilm first to ask permission to have a free screening of the movies in a bar. Those disclaimers at the beginning of every movie on home video since the early days of VHS -- "This film is licensed for private viewing only" -- are easily dismissed, but legal departments of production companies take them seriously.
I obviously have no idea if Lucasfilm would have OK'd a free screening of Star Wars in a bar or not. I've seen screenings of the films advertised occasionally around town, though, so I would think they'd be at least somewhat open to the idea. Again, I don't know -- but I do know that this sort of thing is part of the whole copyright landscape these days, and that organizers of such events are best advised to proceed with caution and get permissions.