The butcher, the baker, the lightsaber maker

Forrest Phillips

[0.1] Abstract—Lightsaber artisanship is an entrepreneurial fandom that has thus far avoided encountering legal trouble because of their deferential attitude toward the IP holder.

[0.2] Keywords—Fan community; Profit; Prop making; Star Wars

Phillips, Forrest. 2014. "The Butcher, the Baker, the Lightsaber Maker." In "Material Fan Culture," edited by Bob Rehak, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 16.

[0.2] If you look at the potential for working props then Star Wars has the edge. Series such as Dr. Who, or Harry Potter have spawned maybe one or two that can be activated but the lightsaber is the most popular as it is so interactive.

—Susan, e-mail, May 15, 2012

1. Introduction and definition of terms

[1.1] A significant portion of fan studies scholarship is focused on how fans interact with texts by manipulating them or creating new ones. However, as fans' access to the means of production has increased over time, so have their methods of engagement. One new practice is the fan labor of professional prop creation. It can be found in many fandoms, but in this essay, I will focus on lightsaber artisans and their interactions with the Star Wars franchise.

[1.2] I use the term artisan to refer to small outlets that sell handcrafted goods directly to individuals. They emphasize quality and craftsmanship over maximizing growth (Forkish 2012, 17). There are more buyers than sellers, each item is handmade, and craftsmanship is king (Hetherington 2012; "F.A.Q.," n.d.). These businesses are artisan regardless of the category of goods they sell. Lightsaber artisans' handmade products, their emphasis on quality, and their work's status as reverse-engineered industrial products tie them into the history of fandom via their similarities to blueprint culture (Rehak 2012).

[1.3] Lightsaber artisans fall firmly within the definition of artisanship laid out in the previous section. In line with the definitions provided by Forkish and Hetherington, Ultra Sabers says their bottom line is "quality of product, affordability, and a speedy delivery" (UltraSabers LLC "About Us," n.d.). The artisan behind LDM Custom Sabers prioritizes his artistic fulfillment over his desire to make a profit ("Services," n.d.). This contrasts strongly with non-artisans like Hasbro whose focus, quite appropriately, is on delivering profits and other benefits to their shareholders ("Hasbro, Inc.—Governance Principles," n.d.). While generating a profit is a good thing, from a fan perspective, artisans' emphasis on quality has resulted in superior products.

Video 1. Ultrasabers vs. Hasbro.

[1.4] Artisan sabers fall into two categories. The first is duplicate sabers. These are screen-accurate replicas of lightsabers seen in a Star Wars film. Much as Franz Joseph worked backwards from episodes of Star Trek to create the Starfleet Technical Manual in the 1970s, these saber artisans work backwards from the celluloid canon (Rehak 2012). Some duplicate sabers are machined from scratch while others are assembled from scavenged parts like those used by Lucasfilm's prop department ("Graflex/Heiland," n.d.; "The New Hope Obi-Wan," n.d.).

Video 2. The high-end parts used to build a lightsaber in the 1970s.

[1.5] The second is original sabers. This refers to any design that hasn't appeared in an official visual depiction. They can be unique designs, a predesigned stock saber, or something in between (saberforge 2008; "Sabers for Sale," n.d.; Ultra Sabers LLC, "Single Blade Sabers," n.d.).

2. Why lightsabers?

Video 3. A JQ Sabers product.

[2.1] The lightsaber represents Star Wars more than any single prop represents its source material. This iconic status is part of what motivated artisans to sell them:

[2.2] Lightsabers fit in nicely with Martial Arts also from a business point of view there are a lot more people ready to spend money on a lightsaber…Creating a profitable business was another important criteria. (Ratcliffe, pers. comm.)

[2.3] Additionally, builders report that crafting a saber is gratifying (Caine 2012). Fandom is a key part of this satisfaction and indicates that lightsaber artisanship shares DNA with other forms of fan labor (Ratcliffe, pers. comm.; Rehak 2010). Saber artisans are thus best viewed as a hybrid of entrepreneurs and uncompensated fan laborers (Deuze 2007).

[2.4] Artisan lightsabers allow fans to cut through the fourth wall and step into Star Wars' diegesis. Duplicate sabers are endowed with the personality and history of the character they belong to, allowing fans to step into said character's shoes (Gunnels 2009). Claims about original sabers are less direct. While some fans give their creation a backstory, most claims stem solely from using the term lightsaber (Spectre, n.d.; "Sabers for Sale," n.d.). These totemic and diegesis-piercing qualities aren't unique to artisan props. As Jen Gunnels explains, they are key to the appeal of cosplay (Gunnels 2009). What separates saber artisans from cosplayers has nothing to do with their fandom. What differentiates them is financial motive.

3. My business is fandom and business is good.

Video 4. An artisan shows off his wares.

[3.1] The key difference between saber artisans and most other fan laborers is that artisans profit. Their windfall has been generated via two models. Under the first model, an artisan lists a completed saber for sale on a forum or on their website (Kit Fisto 2013; TridCloudwalker 2010; "Sabers for Sale," n.d.). The second is that a patron commissions an artisan to construct one to their specifications ("Services," n.d.). The gift economy, which is otherwise considered the norm in fandom, is deemphasized (Deuze 2007; Jenkins 2006, 132; Noppe 2011). Renown and other forms of cultural capital are still important, but monetary and material rewards have primacy. This allows artisans to have the best of both worlds as they can reap a profit while retaining the sense of community that the gift economy brings (Scott 2009). It also allows them to avoid third-party commodification, as unlike examples of other attempts to profit from fandom such as FanLib, the fans who labor also reap the fruits. Lightsaber artisans work within fandom's structure rather than attempting to reshape it.

[3.2] Daren Ratcliffe of JQ Sabers was quite open that the decision to focus their work on lightsabers was partially based on demand (Ratcliffe, pers. comm.). This isn't to say the DNA of fan artisanship is unique to Star Wars fandom. There are artisans in the fandoms of every significant media property, but Star Wars' are unique. The lightsaber is no ordinary plot object. It was voted the greatest movie weapon of all time (Borland 2008). This widespread popularity makes it easier to build a business on than an overlooked item from an obscure creature feature.

[3.3] This popularity has also provided artisans with the benefits of community. First, artisans get to trade tips and best practices. On forums across the Internet, saber builders discuss the best way to make a saber and compare the relative merits of components (fullyfired 2012; surlygirlie 2004; Xamas 2009). The names of sound cards and saber blades fly like the names of engines at an auto show. Second, the community acts as quality control. If an artisan's work or behavior is shoddy, the community will blacklist them (darthmorbius 2007). For example, when one customer complained about never receiving a lightsaber they ordered, the artisan community tried to track down the merchant (Anakin Skywalker 2009; chaos_79 2009). Third, the community's online presence provides a clear method of sale. Forums serve as bazaars that let fans find an artisan to construct the saber of their dreams (Enzo 2013). The FX-Sabers forum facilitates this by providing subforums for select artisans ("—Forum," n.d.) (note 1). Providing this space has helped artisans to develop individual brands (Darth Smorgis 2013). These brands are not limited to the division between skilled and unskilled artisans, and customers spend their money on the basis of aesthetics rather than solely on concern about competence (Iggy 2013).

[3.4] The rise of distinct brands and aesthetics isn't the only indication of the health of the lightsaber market. Demand is so high that JQ Sabers and other artisans have had to either implement a waiting list or become increasingly selective ("JQ Sabers—A force," n.d.; Kit Fisto 2013; "Services," n.d.; TridCloudwalker 2010). This strong customer base has allowed lightsaber artisans to personally profit from their fan labor. Historically, making a profit has been taboo within fandom due to the fear that this would inevitably lead to legal reprisal from IP owners (Fiesler 2008, 731–49).

4. Artisans and Lucasfilm

[4.1] Common wisdom holds that profiting from fan labor opens fandom to the legion of lawyers assembled at its gates. This fear stems from a belief that works that make a profit inevitably encounter legal trouble (Lantagne 2012). No less an authority than George Lucas has indicated that Lucasfilm objects to fan activity making a profit (Balkin 2004, 8). Despite doing this very thing, lightsaber artisans seem not to be a target of the threats and lawsuits that other fan producers have to wrangle with (Davis 2008). Lightsaber artisans don't appear to have suffered in any way for their labor. There is precedence for this. Lucasfilm has traditionally been supportive of fan activity as long as it doesn't construct new stories or alter the existing Star Wars universe (Mullin 2012; Phillips 2012). Lucasfilm's former Vice President Jim Ward summed up the company's position when he declared that "fandom is about celebrating the story the way it is" (Jenkins 2006, 153). Duplicate sabers celebrate the story's essence by recreating a plot object featured within it. While original sabers may not celebrate it to the same extent, they don't challenge the existing story. Despite this tradition of amnesty, artisans are aware that their companies are built on a precarious foundation. Many of the sites I visited in my research had a disclaimer making it very clear that they are not affiliated with or endorsed by Lucasfilm (UltraSabers LLC, "About Us," n.d.). JQ Sabers' Daren Ratcliffe made a similar distancing statement in our email exchange:

[4.2] I admire [George Lucas's] work and the control he keeps over his rights, we take great care not to infringe any SW trademark or merchandising rules. A mistake can be very costly and disrespectful. (Ratcliffe, pers. comm.)

[4.3] In order to avoid such a costly mistake, Ratcliffe has refrained from using the term lightsaber altogether ("JQ Sabers—A force," n.d.). This deference and rhetorical distance sets them apart from other fan producers who at times assume an oppositional stance and cite their own colleagues as being greater talents than Lucas and other IP originators (Bionicbob 2012).

[4.4] Given the deferential stance of lightsaber artisans, Lucasfilm's more benevolent attitude is likely no coincidence. Lucasfilm hasn't spoken well of fans making money from their intellectual property. When asked about The Phantom Edit, a Lucasfilm press officer told the New York Times, "We can't allow them to duplicate and distribute our films for profit" (Broderick 2012; Larson 2011; Zalewski 2002). Duplicate saber artisans are, in essence, doing the very thing this press officer said that Lucasfilm can't allow. They are profiting from Star Wars. If the principle is that fans shouldn't profit from Lucas's work, then one might expect these artisans to be as culpable as anyone else. However, they have been spared any sort of legal penalty. Why? I think the answer lies in the quote from Jim Ward that I touched on earlier. Some fan producers want to rework a property to fit their own tastes or communicate their own concerns (Jenkins 2003). Lightsaber artisans are different. They don't want to change Star Wars. They don't want to revise Star Wars. They just want to feel like they're a part of it. Lucasfilm understands that encouraging some level of fan labor, especially celebratory fan labor, is in their own interest (Jenkins 2006, 135; Landa 2012; Mullin 2012). Lightsaber artisans are the type of creators that Lucasfilm has historically encouraged. Much like Lucasfilm's official Fan Film Festival, they pay tribute to Star Wars rather than transforming it (Rose 2012, 94). Allowing fans to enact their desire to be part of Star Wars furthers the emotional and psychological ties that are the core foundation of fandom and by extension increases the value of the franchise (De Kosnik, n.d.).

5. Conclusion

[5.1] Lightsaber artisans' uniqueness comes from the fact that they have done the impossible. They used their fan labor to generate a profit while avoiding any legal punishment. Lucasfilm's history of turning a blind eye to lightsaber artisans is likely because the relatively small amount of money such artisans draw away from their coffers is dwarfed by the profit that such die-hard fans generate for Lucasfilm and its partners (Jenkins 2003). It remains unclear whether this will persist under the new regime. Some artisans are concerned that Disney will crack down on people selling unlicensed props, but others have faith the Mouse House knows this decision would backfire (Nico Diath 2012; Warrent Voyd 2012).

[5.2] Beyond questions of whether these practices are sustainable, lightsaber artisanship also raises questions about how we define fannish production. It is well documented that the border between fans and producers has become blurred (Gillan 2010, 228). This discourse often focuses on the fading line between producer and fan, but lightsaber artisanship demonstrates that the line between consumer and creator is becoming similarly hazy.

6. Note

1. If forums are bazaars, these subforums are best conceptualized as artisans' individual booths.

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