The Power Rangers Short Film Controversy: Who is right?

The Internet is buzzing over Vimeo and YouTube removing a Power Rangers short fan film over copyright infringement and the recent deal between the films producers and the Power Rangers copyright holder that will allow the film to be freely distributed across the Internet. The original copyright complaints were initiated by billionaire Haim Saban’s company, Saban Brands, which owns the Power Rangers franchise. (Sabah Brands also has a feature film in the works with Lionsgate.) Veteran music video director Joseph Kahn, and producer Ari Shankar created the short fan film. Unlike Saban’s Power Rangers, which is generally light an uplifting, Kahn’s Power Rangers is dark and bloody, with characters that are very different from their TV counterparts. Kahn’s fan film has the Power Rangers snorting coke, firing guns, cursing, and having intense knife fights. The film also has a star-studded cast including Katee Sackhoff of “Battlestar Galactica” and James Van Der Beek.

When the film was removed from YouTube and Vimeo, the Internet went apoplectic; fans throwing virtual jabs at Saban, along with Kahn and Shankar taking to Twitter to rile up the fans and make their own attacks on Saban. With all the rhetoric going back and forth, one thing was clear: very few of the players involved understand how intellectual property laws work. Maybe that’s not too surprising, given the Internet’s uncanny ability to create false facts and urban legends that somehow become “truth” for web surfers everywhere. In this case, the lack of legal understanding helped Kahn and Shankar’s social media blitz and with Saban’s reluctance to get on the wrong side of potential fans, the two groups found a compromise, giving Kahn’s Power Rangers back to the people.

Despite the outcome, what would have happened to Kahn and his film had the Internet not gotten involved? Why did Saban give in? This won’t be the last time a copyright holder loses a bid for control of his or her intellectual property so it pays to take a look at the issues so anybody with, or wanting to use, someone else’s creative content understands the boundaries of copyright protection.

How much control does Saban have over the Power Rangers’ brand?

Saban holds the copyright for the Power Rangers through a holding company, Saban Brands, which has the exclusive right to control any copying, distribution, public display, performing publicly, or creation of derivatives for the Power Rangers. For Saban to invoke copyright infringement, Kahn’s video has to break one of the rules. These rules are hard to define with different courts having slightly different interpretations. But it is safest to view them strictly if deciding if those rights are being violated. For example, uploading a Power Rangers TV Show onto a website violates the copy, public display and public performance rights. The distribution right is not violated because the show is not being physically transferred, it is merely being viewed and viewing a video is not copying. If the video were downloadable, then that would violate the distribution right. So, if Kahn violated any one of these rights, he and his company committed copyright infringement, unless his film falls under “fair use,” which we will discuss later.

The original Power Rangers

When Vimeo first removed the film, Khan laid out his defense via a tweet. He wrote, “Every image in Power/Rangers is original footage. Nothing was pre-existing. There is no copyrighted footage in the short. I am not making any money on it and I refuse to accept any from anyone. It was not even Kickstarted, I paid for it myself. This was made to be given away for free. It is just as if I drew a pic of Power Rangers on a napkin and I gave it to my friend. Is it illegal to give pic I drew of a character on a napkin to someone for free? No.”

Kahn’s points sound logical and the Internet backed him up on those points, however those defenses unfortunately mischaracterize copyright law (perhaps alluding to why he felt he could create a Power Rangers video without consequences from the copyright holder.)

The Right To Control Derivative Works

Kahn claims that since he didn’t copy or distribute or perform any of Saban’s copyrighted material, such as a script or a story sequence, then he is not infringing on Saban’s exclusive rights. That may be true regarding materials that Saban created, but Kahn seems to have forgotten that one of the exclusive rights is the right to make derivatives. The Copyright Act defines a derivative work as “a work based upon one or more preexisting works, such as a . . . motion picture version . . or any other form in which a work may be recast, transformed, or adapted.”

Fictional characters have copyright protection, outside of the underlying copyrighted material, provided that they are sufficiently unique and distinctive. Judge Learned Hand (yes, that is his real name) established the standard for character protection when he stated that, “… the less developed the characters, the less they can be copyrighted; that is the penalty an author must bear for marking them too indistinct.”

In determining whether characters reach the level of uniqueness required, courts will look at the personality traits, identifying characteristics and relationship with other characters, among other things. If the characters in a new work contain enough identifiable material that someone exposed to the new work would recognize the character as being derived from the copyrighted work, then it would be a derivative. For example, anyone can write a story about a magic school where wizards are educated and the main characters stop an evil villain. But, if the main character is well known for the scar on his forehead in the shape of a lighting bolt which he received when a villain tried to kill him, then the author may find a cease and desist letter or takedown notice from J. K. Rowling.

In fact, author Nancy Kathleen Stouffer sued J.K. Rowling in 1999 for copying Harry Potter from Stouffer’s short stories, The Legend of Rah and the Muggles and Larry Potter and His Best Friend Lilly. However in her stories, “Muggles” were a race of mutant humanoids, not wizards. The Larry Potter character, like Harry Potter, is a dark haired boy with glasses although he does not appear in the The Legend of Rah and the Muggles. Stouffer claimed other similarities, however they fell short of being distinctive enough. The judge wrote, “no reasonable juror could find a likelihood of confusion as to the source of the two parties’ works”.

Power RangersKahn’s Power Rangers film uses characters that Saban holds the copyright to and is adapting those characters to create a new work. It doesn’t matter that Kahn is only using original material; the characters are not original. Even with Kahn’s dark and gritty interpretation, which has markedly different personality traits from the Power Rangers in the original series (I am pretty sure that Power Rangers never snorted cocaine on TV), the characters are clearly Power Rangers. As well, Kahn doesn’t make any claims that they are anything but the Power Rangers and so he has created a derivative work. Since Saban controls derivative work of the Power Rangers, then Kahn has violated Saban’s right to make derivatives along with the right to control copies, public display and public performance, and possibly distribution rights as well.

The Fair Use Defense

Kahn’s second defense is actually a good one, but not for the reason that he thinks. Kahn is saying that because he isn’t profiting from the film, he is not infringing. Shankar also suggests in other tweets that fan films are not copyright infringement.

The idea stems from a misunderstanding of the doctrine of fair use, which allows the use of copyrighted works without permission from the copyright holder. Profiting from a work is a factor in a fair use analysis but it is not the only one, and so doesn’t determine the final outcome, it only weighs in favor of fair use.

The Copyright Act lists types of activities that would be considered fair use, including critique, commentary, news reporting, teaching, research, and parody. We wouldn’t want our news reporters to get permission each time they needed to use copyrighted material to explain an important news event, or a movie critic to receive permission to use clips when creating a review. We need unfettered access to copyrighted material to ensure the free flow of information and free speech. However, the movie critic can only use as much as is needed to get the point across, so a two- minute clip or a clip of the ending would be an infringement.Power Rangers

More importantly, only the court, on a case-by-case basis, can determine using copyrighted material is fair use. There are, of course, clear usage that doesn’t need court intervention only because we all understand and agree that those specific uses are clearly fair use. For example, a teacher using pages from a book to teach a class is fair use, copying a chapter is less clear-cut, but if the teacher copies the entire book and distributes it to the class, then the teacher would have committed copyright infringement.

Outside of that list, use if copyrighted material can still be considered fair use under certain conditions. If an infringer claims fair use, the court will use the Four Factor Test to analyze the usage. None of the factors are determinative although their weighting will vary base on the facts of the case. They four factor are:

  1. The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes
  2. The nature of the copyrighted work
  3. The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole
  4. The effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work

It is very difficult to know whether a work is fair use because we don’t know how a court will weigh the factors, although we can often know which is more likely or whether a good case can be made for fair use. For example, if a copyrighted work is used by a non-profit organization, and only a small part of the copyrighted work is used, and the copyrighted work only plays a small part in the totality of the new work, then it is likely fair use.

Kahn is using the Power Rangers character’s throughout his derivative work, and is exposing the work to a large audience, which may have an effect on the market. So despite not generating any income, the fair use analysis would probably fall short. As for Kahn’s comment regarding drawing Power Rangers on a napkin and giving it to someone; that analogy is false. The nature of that work is very different than a film being seen by such a large audience, especially given the graphic violence and drug use that could conceivably hurt the Power Ranger’s brand among its current fan base.

Parody Could Be The Key

While the traditional fair use test may not weigh in Kahn’s favor, the parody exception (one of those listed in the Copyright Act along with criticism, news reporting and teaching) leans heavily toward Kahn’s Power Rangers being fair use. For a work to be considered a parody, the work must poke fun at the original work. However, the work cannot be used to poke fun at another work, which would be considered satire, and not fair use. Parody usually attempts to exaggerate a work in a humorous way without any political or social meaning.  Saturday Night Live uses parody to mock movies among other things, and so doesn’t need permission to use the plotline and characters. Courts also look at these additional factors in its parody analysis

  1. the parody must be obvious: the audience should not have to struggle to figure out what is being made fun of.
  2. the parody must take no more of the original than necessary to make its point.  So changing just the words in a chorus of a popular song, while leaving the rest of the song intact, is likely not fair use.
  3. a parody cannot pose a direct threat to the market for the original work. Think of it this way, would people buy the parody instead of the original, cannibalizing sales of the original?

 Is the Kahn Power Ranger’s film a parody? The idea that the film is making fun of the Power Rangers is fairly obvious. As well, few people are going to watch this movie at the expense of the original Power Rangers. As a parody, the film would likely be considered fair use, however, if it were a full length feature film competing against the new Lionsgate Power Rangers film, then it would probably not be considered fair use.

YouTube and Vimeo were wrongful villains

Saban wasn’t the only one who received ire and consternation from the Internet. YouTube and Vimeo were also lambasted for having removed the film. What the Internet failed to understand is that YouTube and Vimeo were required to remove the film under the rules of the Digital Millennium Copy Act (DMCA), in order to continue to be immune from prosecution for copyright infringement. The immunity is critical for site like YouTube to operate because copyright is a strict liability law.

Power RangersUnder copyright law, companies that host user generated content would be liable for copyright infringements each time a subscriber uploads copyrighted material. As a strict liability law, whether the companies knew that the material being uploaded was copyrighted protected has no bearing. The simple fact that the service is publicly displaying the work is an infringement. Obviously, no company could successfully function under those rules because the company would be under constant legal threat. To alleviate the risk, Congressed passed the DMCA, which includes Safe Harbor provisions allowing immunity for content providers, if certain conditions are met.

First, the site must merely host content and not actively be involved in generating or promoting the content. Sites must also register as a Safe Harbor company with the Copyright Office and provide a DMCA specified mechanism for users to request removal of infringing material. The DMCA procedure for takedown requires that any infringing material be removed upon request. Saban made a takedown request, and Vimeo and YouTube abided by the request as required. If Kahn and Shankar disagreed, for example claiming that the work is fair use, then they can make a counter-claim.

The DMCA procedures for a counter claim would work like this:

When the provider (YouTube or Vimeo) received the counter claim from Kahn, the provider must promptly notify Saban that a counter claim had been made. The notification to Saban must include the reason for the cournter0claim, Kahn’s contact info, and that the provider will replace the video, and cease disabling access to it, in not less than 10 business days, but no more than 14 business days, following receipt of the counter claim. To keep the video disabled, Saban must petition the court for an injunction, but if he can’t get an injunction within the ten day time period, the film would be restored.

Unfortunately for Saban, injunctions are time consuming and expensive, and aren’t usually something that can be accomplished in 10 days, especially in places like California and New York where the courts are overwhelmed with cases. Usually, the removed work ends up back on the site, with the copyholder initiate a copyright infringement lawsuit, which will also ask for an injunction. That would give Saban more time to write a coherent argument for the court, and allow for a response from Kahn. However, courts do not usually give injunction unless the removal is time-sensitive or the continued use irreparably damages the copyrighted work. Courts prefer to let the case proceed normally, in which if the copyright holder prevails will receive appropriate damages.

As for YouTube and Vimeo, they were only following procedures. “When a copyright holder notifies us of a video that infringes their copyright,” a YouTube spokesperson told Deadline, “we remove content promptly in accordance with the law.” A more interesting case, however, is Facebook, which allowed the video to remain on Kahn’s Facebook page; refusing to honor the takedown request. Why Facebook did not follow DMCA procedures uis not known however, Shankar did thank Mark Zuckerberg personally on his Facebook page writing: “Thank you Mark Zuckerberg for hosting Power/Rangers and taking a stand.


In the end, Kahn and Shankar struck a deal with Saban, and are now free to push their Power Rangers film anywhere online. The settlement required extensive disclaimers noting that the work is a fan film, made without any affiliation from Saban Brands, as well as claiming no rights to the characters. YouTube is apparently hosting a cleaner version of the video, while the original “NSFW” version is being hosted on Vimeo. (And at the top of this page) Kahn wrote on twitter, “Hey internet, YOU WON. Saban has kindly and generously agreed to let us show POWER/RANGERS!”

If the case had moved forward to court, other issues such as trademark infringement would have also surfaced possibly overcoming the parody defense. Ultimately, the situation was resolved despite the misconceptions related to copyright law, and in many ways, that is what we want to happen. Legal action should be the last approach, not the first one. Kahn and Shankar created an amazing public relations campaign through social media but perhaps the situation should not have gone as far as it did. Had the various parties understood the law maybe they would have talked first and took legal action later. Hopefully, Kahn, Shankar and Saban will know better next time although, given Kahn’s latest Tweet, probably not: THANK YOU to everyone who fought for free speech. You made a difference. Your voice was heard. Kind of nuts, right? (Making a power Rangers short film is not a free speech issue.)

About the author

Steve Schlackman

As a photographer and Patent Attorney with a background in marketing, Steve has a unique perspective on art and law. Should you have any questions on Intellectual Property contact him at [email protected] His photography can be seen online at or on display at the Emmanuel Fremin Gallery in New York City.

1 Comment

Click here to post a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  • I’m surprised that you only mentioned Trademarks at the end, as an afterthought, as that would seem (to me, anyway) to be where the brunt of the complaint would lie, rather than in Copyright.

The Latest From Artrepreneur

  • Art Walks Put California on Parade

    For most Californians, walking yields to driving as the main mode of transportation. Driving is such a driving force for the state’s residents that “Saturday Night Live” created a recurring sketch about soap opera characters […]

  • The Future is Bright, Say Art Entrepreneurs

    According to a new report by the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP) the old adage of the struggling artist may officially be a myth. SNAAP’s special report, “Career Skills and Entrepreneurship Training for […]

  • Artist Profile: Natalia Nakazawa — Art, Work, and Life

    Natalia Nakazawa is a visual artist who works in mixed media to create paintings, tapestries, and collages. Her latest installation was displayed in a window of the iconic art deco Clocktower Building in Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood. The […]

  • Art Business Conferences for the Art Entrepreneur

    Are you on your way to becoming a thriving art entrepreneur? Check out these upcoming art business conferences to increase your chances for success! The post Art Business Conferences for the Art Entrepreneur appeared first on Artrepreneur. […]

  • Eight Artist in Residence Programs to Launch Your Career

    We’ve previously reviewed how important it is to craft a bio and resume that details your art career, and today we’ll discuss one essential element that’s sure to make your career stand out: the Artist in Residence. Artist in […]

  • Write an Artist Bio to Get Noticed

    Most artists are used to expressing themselves in creative ways, but fewer understand the importance of expressing who they are in words. In this article, we'll review the creating an artist bio while offering some useful tips on its content. The […]

  • Balancing a Full-Time Job with Fulfilling Creativity

    Need more time in your day to work on creative endeavors? Here are few ideas that may help. The post Balancing a Full-Time Job with Fulfilling Creativity appeared first on Artrepreneur. […]

  • Launching an Art Startup? These Online Resources Can Help.

    Launching your own art startup can be scary. Here are a few tips and online resources that may help. The post Launching an Art Startup? These Online Resources Can Help. appeared first on Artrepreneur. […]

  • Expanding Your Art Business Beyond You [Part 2]

    Are you ready to expand your art business? Here's what you need to know about hiring and terminating employees, employee retirement plans and vacation and sick leave. The post Expanding Your Art Business Beyond You [Part 2] appeared first on […]

  • You Don’t Have to be an Artist to Work with Art

    Just because you don’t possess any artistic abilities – or just because you haven’t made it as an artist yet – doesn’t mean you can’t have a creative, art-filled career. There are plenty of “art […]

  • Expanding Your Art Business Beyond You

    Artists successfully running their own art business may be ready to hire an employee. We've covered everything you need to know, from tax requirements to insurance obligations. The post Expanding Your Art Business Beyond You appeared first on […]

  • What Photographers Need to Know About Shooting People [with Cameras]

    In this article, we'll review a key example of publicity and privacy issues, and what you need to know to keep your photography in the clear. The post What Photographers Need to Know About Shooting People [with Cameras] appeared first on […]

  • Getting What You Want: Basic Negotiation Tips For Creatives

    Selling and negotiating can be very intimidating. Fear not! Here are some common sense tips to negotiation that can help you get what you want. The post Getting What You Want: Basic Negotiation Tips For Creatives appeared first on Artrepreneur. […]

  • How to Sell Art [Without Being Annoying]

    Most artists will tell you that the hardest part of their job is trying to sell their artwork to the masses. Sure, they love the creativity and the freedom being an artist provides, but how can they make a living unless they sell their work? While […]

  • Museums Deck the Halls with Holiday Cheer for All

    Check out seasonal exhibits from some of the country’s top art museums. The post Museums Deck the Halls with Holiday Cheer for All appeared first on Artrepreneur. […]

  • Why Galleries Should Get Down with Art Fairs [A Useful Guide]

    As we're winding down from celebrating Art Basel Miami Beach, we're thinking about all the different ways galleries and artists can benefit from participating in these international art fairs. The post Why Galleries Should Get Down with Art Fairs [A […]

  • Your All Access Pass to Art Basel

    Dying to tackle Art Basel Miami Beach, but not sure where to start? You won't want to miss these stunning displays of the best of contemporary art. The post Your All Access Pass to Art Basel appeared first on Artrepreneur. […]

  • Get Your Networking on at Miami Art Week

    Miami Art Week is the perfect time for artists to network and gather contacts to keep building an art business. Check out five events primed to bring new opportunities. The post Get Your Networking on at Miami Art Week appeared first on Artrepreneur. […]

  • The Garment District: From Buttons and Bows to a Home for Art

    The Garment District Alliance has worked hard to evolve the area from a faded industrial center to a revitalized business district committed to bringing art to the streets. The post The Garment District: From Buttons and Bows to a Home for Art […]

  • United States of the Art: Six Destinations for the Great American Road Trip

    A cross-country road trip provides plenty of opportunities to create art. The post United States of the Art: Six Destinations for the Great American Road Trip appeared first on Artrepreneur. […]

  • How Does a Photography Business Make Money?

    Photographers are uniquely positioned within the art world to earn money through various revenue streams. Here's how you find work. The post How Does a Photography Business Make Money? appeared first on Artrepreneur. […]

  • The Basics of Insurance Part II: Health Insurance for Artists

    In this article, we’ll a type of insurance that you’ll want to think about as you build your art business – health insurance for artists. The post The Basics of Insurance Part II: Health Insurance for Artists appeared first on […]

  • The Emergence of the Creative Entrepreneur

    The term “starving artist” has long been part of our lexicon, signifying the significant struggle artists face bringing their creative work to market. For the lucky few that survive until they have paid their dues, the career can be […]

  • Seth Godin and Marketing for the Art World

    A good marketing strategy can help grow a business if done well. Let Seth Godin show you how to be a modern marketer in his skillshare video series. The post Seth Godin and Marketing for the Art World appeared first on Artrepreneur. […]

  • These Five Companies Put the Art in Startup

    Technology and art are intersecting in more ways than ever, and today’s art startups are revolutionizing the way art is consumed and collected. Entrepreneurs have been intersecting art and technology since the start of the .com boom. Portfolio […]

  • The Art Museum In The Digital Age

    I talked with Steve Konick, Director of Public Relations and Marketing for the Currier Museum of Art, in Manchester, New Hampshire, to understand why art museums are still relevant The post The Art Museum In The Digital Age appeared first on […]

  • Should I Open a Corporation for My Art Business?

    About 375,000 visual artists claim to be self-employed yet many don't realize that their personal assets can be at risk. Find out how opening a corporation can help protect you. The post Should I Open a Corporation for My Art Business? appeared […]

  • Model Citizens and Protected Images: Work-for-Hire and Right of Publicity

    Last week, we discussed model releases, and an example concerning a model whose image was being used by a company in a more liberal manner than what had originally been agreed upon by the model and the company. You may recall that in this instance, […]

  • Does Copyright and Trademark Law Protect 3D Printing?

    3D printing is a relatively new art form is sweeping the internet and worrying designers and Hollywood executives alike. Along with the advent of 3D printing, a steady stream of piracy and copyright infringement cases have been reported by industry […]

  • Consider this tip before signing an International Art Contract

    Most art galleries participate in art fairs throughout the year. Many of those fairs are international, such as Art Basel Switzerland or the Hong International Art Fair. International art fairs are an excellent way to position your gallery in […]

  • Six Steps to Safer Image Sharing

    Despite the unfortunate reality that image sharing on the Internet can lead to misappropriation of your work, there are some steps that can minimize the risks. The post Six Steps to Safer Image Sharing appeared first on Artrepreneur. […]

  • Does Freedom of Speech Protect Taking Photos of People Through Windows?

    Fine art Photographer Arne Svenson spent a year secretly taking photos of the Fosters, a family living across the street from his home. Does the Foster's Right to Privacy outweigh Svenson's Freedom of Expression? The post Does Freedom of Speech […]

  • Four Reasons Artists Should Hire Lawyers

    Think artists can't afford to hire lawyers? Actually, artists can't afford to not have one by their side. Here's four reasons why. The post Four Reasons Artists Should Hire Lawyers appeared first on Artrepreneur. […]

  • Death and Taxes: Save Millions Through Careful Estate Planning

    Artists and collectors can minimize estate taxes on artworks by employing a planning strategy and understanding the complexities involved with assessing the work's fair market value. The post Death and Taxes: Save Millions Through Careful Estate […]

  • Can You Spot a Fake? The Trouble with Authenticating Art

    What are the challenges for collectors in authenticating artworks? What are the legal remedies when a purchased artwork is discovered to be a forgery? The post Can You Spot a Fake? The Trouble with Authenticating Art appeared first on Artrepreneur. […]