So I recently read this article over on Buzzfeed. The quick version of the story goes like this. Many moons ago, there was a show on Fox called Firefly that aired for one, far too brief and truncated, season. Fox then cancelled the show and more or less forgot about it. However, the show developed a rabid base of fans that refer to themselves as Browncoats. One of the symbols adopted by the Browncoat culture is called the “Cunning Hat” or “Jayne’s Hat,” a yellow and orange knit hat with flaps, similar to one worn by actor Adam Baldwin (Character name: Jayne Cobb) in an episode of the show. See a picture of Baldwin in character, wearing the hat, here.
For years, Firefly devotees with a knack for knitting have crafted these hats and sold them to other Firefly devotees that lack a knack for knitting, via sites like Etsy. Now, after years of fans working like crazy to introduce friends and family to the show, the film continuation Serenity, and the wonder that is the Cunning Hat – in effect, creating a market for a product based on a show that Fox treated very, very badly – website ThinkGeek partnered up with Ripple Junction and, by proxy, Fox to provide official, licensed versions of the hat. Okay, fine, a decade too late, but that’s the way it goes sometimes.
The kicker, however, is that Fox’s legal department has begun carpet bombing all the Etsy-based Cunning Hat providers with cease and desist orders. Caveat: I acknowledge that Fox has at least a tenuous legal right to do this, though an argument can be made that they abandoned their legal interest in this by turning a blind eye to the fan-made products for a decade. Simply as a point of honor, this is a miserable way to treat the people who helped build the market you’re trying to cater to. It’s also clear that Fox’s legal department didn’t consult their PR people before sending out these cease and desist orders. Here’s how I know this.
It would have taken less than an hour of research for someone who knew absolutely nothing about Joss Whedon, Firefly, Serenity or the Browncoat fanbase to realize that this move was going to be a public relations mess of Hindenbergian proportions. Browncoats are tech-savvy, social media-engaged, and a very proactive group. For example, there are the annual, fan coordinated screenings of Serenity. Or, you might recall that fans banded together to Help Nathan Buy Firefly after actor Nathan Fillion made a casual comment that he would buy the rights to Firefly if he won a $300 million lottery. Then there is the annual Browncoat Ball where fans gather from around the world to celebrate Firefly.
This is a culture that cares about the show, but also a culture that is deeply protective of its members. Laying down legal napalm on working moms and grandmas knitting in their rocking chairs is exactly the kind of thing to make legions of Browncoats rise up in fury. More importantly, any PR person worth their salary could have told Fox that this was a bad move. What Fox could have done that would have earned it miles of goodwill and tons of great press is to issue limited licenses to the Etsy “Cunning Hat” producers. Build a limit of 500 units per year into the license, which is probably a lot more than most of the Etsy sellers would ever make, and call it good.