Praxis

“Affect the interest” is a new feature column to the Fan Film Follies where we invite guests to speak their voice on the niche subject and sometimes bizarre genre we call the Fan Film. Our first columnist allowed us to reprint this article for the site first posted at Creative Commons License. I’m sure you’ll agree this is some fascinating reading.

Fan filmmaking and copyright in a global world: Warhammer 40,000 fan films and the case of Damnatus

Liverpool Hope University, Liverpool, England, United Kingdom

[0.1] Abstract—The last decade has witnessed a proliferation, both online and off-line, of films produced by amateurs inspired by mainstream films, TV shows, and novels. As with much other fan production, fan films exist in, at best, a legally gray area since they are produced by amateurs, rather than by the media companies that own the copyrights to the films and novels that provide both their inspiration and settings. I examine the phenomenon of fan filmmaking, focusing on films produced by fans of the Warhammer 40,000 (W40K) tabletop battle game. In particular, I examine the case of Damnatus: The Enemy Within (Damnatus: Feind Im Innern, 2005), a German-made fan film set in the W40K universe, which was banned from release by the game’s rights holder, the UK company Games Workshop, in 2007. Damnatus offers an interesting case study in both the ongoing struggle between rights holders and textual poachers and the tensions that can exist between different legal understandings of copyright in an increasingly globalized world.

[0.2] Keywords—Fan community; Fan vid

Walliss, John. 2010. Fan filmmaking and copyright in a global world: Warhammer 40,000 fan films and the case of Damnatus. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 5. doi:10.3983/twc.2010.0178.

1. Introduction

[1.1] The last decade has witnessed a proliferation, both online and off-line, of films produced by amateurs, inspired by mainstream films, TV shows, and novels. These fan films have ranged in tone from comic to erotic, and in length from a few minutes to several episodes. They have contained special effects varying in quality, from rank amateur to professional, featuring casts of human actors, action figures, characters made of modeling clay, and everything in between. For example, in 2005, Star Wars: Revelations (2005), a 40-minute live-action film set between Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005) and Episode IV: A New Hope (1977), was downloaded over 3 million times within 3 months of its release, with a third of those downloads occurring within the first 48 hours of its posting online (Young 2008). That same year, the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society, a group of fans based in California, released The Call of Cthulhu (2005), a 47-minute live-action adaptation of Lovecraft’s story of the same name, filmed using the conventions of 1920s silent cinema. More recently, May 2009 saw the online release of the live-action The Lord of the Rings fan film, The Hunt for Gollum (2009), a so-called side sequel that cost around £3,000 (US$4,800) to produce, based on events described in The Fellowship of the Ring and in the novels’ appendixes, but not shown in Peter Jackson’s trilogy (Masters 2009).

[1.2] Such fan films, as Colin Young (2008) shows in his Homemade Hollywood, are of course not a new phenomenon; Young dates the very first fan film to the second decade of the 20th century. However, the emergence of relatively inexpensive digital filmmaking and editing technologies, coupled with a growing fan culture and the growing popularity of Internet sites such as YouTube, Google Videos, or Fanfilms.net (http://fanfilms.net), have led to fan films becoming an increasingly visible part of fan culture. Less than two decades ago, fan films may have been seen by the filmmakers’ family and friends, and if they were lucky, they might be shown at a fan convention. Now, fan filmmakers can, with a little technical know-how, use freely available software to produce their own content, often of high quality. This can then be uploaded for global consumption by potentially hundreds of millions of viewers worldwide.

[1.3] As with much other fan production, fan films exist in a legally gray area (Lessig 2004; Tushnet 2007). They are, after all, produced by amateurs, rather than by the media companies that own the copyrights to the films and novels that provide both their inspiration and settings. Accordingly, rights holders have taken a range of approaches to fan films—from disapproval and the threat of legal sanctions, to tacit approval if they are produced on a not-for-profit basis, to celebrating them as an unofficial part of the fictional worlds that inspired them. Thus, while The Hunt for Gollum has not been officially authorized by New Line Cinema, the Tolkien estate, or Middle-earth Enterprises (formerly Tolkien Enterprises), the filmmakers have, according to the film’s director, “reached an understanding with them that as long as we are completely non-profit then we’re okay…They are supportive of the way fans wish to express their enthusiasm” (Masters 2009). A similar position has recently been adopted by DC Comics, which, according to its president, “are not against things where people use our assets if they don’t do anything monetarily with them” (cliveyoung 2008a). Conversely, in 2008, the producers of Max Payne and James Bond fan films received cease-and-desist letters from rights owners Fox and MGM, respectively (cliveyoung 2008b, 2008c). The most innovative, and in some ways controversial, strategy toward fan films is Lucasfilm’s. It has opted for a policy of incorporation and containment, offering fan filmmakers free Web space on the official Star Wars site—as well as unique content for their films—and sponsoring fan film competitions, on the condition that whatever they post becomes Lucasfilm’s intellectual property (Brooker 2002; Harmon 2002; Jenkins 2006a).

[1.4] In this article, I examine the phenomenon of fan filmmaking, focusing on films produced by fans of the Warhammer 40,000 (W40K) tabletop battle game. In particular, I examine the case of Damnatus: The Enemy Within (Damnatus: Feind Im Innern, 2005), a German-made fan film set within the W40K universe, which was banned in 2007 from being released by the game’s rights holder, the UK company Games Workshop (note 1). W40K fandom, and Damnatus in particular, offers an interesting case study for a number of reasons, not least because, while there has been a growing body of academic work in the related areas of tabletop and online gaming, W40K has to date been ignored in academic literature. Little has been written about the medium of fan filmmaking, compared with the volume of writing about, for example, fan fiction. W40K fandom offers interesting insights into the role of canon within fandom and the extent to which fan creativity necessarily involves subversive textual poaching by fans attempting to reread and transform existing media products to reflect and serve their own particular interests and social agendas (Fiske 1992; Bacon-Smith 1992; Jenkins 1992). While W40K fandom is inherently based around fan creativity, this creativity is typically additive to the W40K canon; fan filmmakers typically use their films to celebrate or illustrate the canon, rather than trying to transform, reread, or subvert it. Fan filmmakers use their creativity to fill a perceived void within W40K fandom caused by the absence of an official film, rather than attempt to reenvision the canon. I will show Damnatus was not banned from release by Games Workshop because it presented a subversive reading of its intellectual property (per the textual poaching thesis); rather, it was a result of inconsistencies and tensions between UK and German copyright laws that both sides tried, but ultimately failed, to overcome. Whereas the overwhelming bulk of the literature to date has focused on female fandom and fan creativity (Busse and Hellekson 2006, 17), W40K fandom is almost exclusively a male domain. It therefore represents a useful case study of gender differences within fandom and how these may affect the form and nature of fan creativity. Finally, the case of Damnatus serves to illustrate the increasing role that online fan communities may play vis-à-vis rights holders (Jenkins 2006a, 2006b). The ban generated a flourishing debate among fans on various forums, with fans attempting to respond to Games Workshop, expressing their anger at the ban (or, in some cases, their support of it), as well as offering various strategies for overturning it.

[1.5] My argument is that although W40K fandom is inherently based around fan creativity, this creativity is typically highly orthodox in its relationship to the W40K narrative canon. In particular, rather than using their creativity to transform or comment on the narrative canon, W40K fan filmmakers are seemingly content to color within its lines. I suggest the reasons for this stem from a combination of the gender and age of the filmmakers, with teenage male fans creating artworks that express a hegemonic understanding of masculinity, plus various practical limitations. While Damnatus was technically more sophisticated than the majority of W40K fan films, it was still nevertheless characterized by a high degree of deference toward the W40K canon. Consequently, the ban on its being released should be understood as stemming from legal concerns over copyright rather than its subversive or transformative content.

[1.6] I first briefly introduce readers to the W40K universe, gaming system, and culture. In the second and third sections, I turn my attention to W40K fan films and the case of Damnatus, focusing particularly on fan reaction to the ban.

2. Warhammer 40,000

[2.1] W40K is a tabletop miniature war game produced by Games Workshop (http://www.gamesworkshop.com/) and set in a dystopian future 38,000 years hence where humanity, represented by the Imperium of Man, stands on the brink of extinction, threatened on all sides by the forces of Chaos, a multitude of enemies, and, closer to home, the threat of heresy. Within the W40K universe, to use one of the game’s slogans, “there is no peace, only war,” with each species fighting just to survive. On earth (Terra), superstition and dogma dominate, the knowledge of science and technology having been lost millennia before, and a godlike emperor who has ruled the imperium for the last 10,000 years holds power. The emperor, long since dead and now existing only in a psychic state maintained through the daily sacrifice of thousands of souls, keeps the forces of Chaos at bay and commands the absolute devotion of the many millions of imperial troops who battle across the galaxy in his name (Cavatore et al. 2008, 101–29).

[2.2] To play W40K, players acquire and paint plastic and metal 28-millimeter scale miniatures sold by Games Workshop of a particular army and race combination within the W40K universe. This is not an inexpensive hobby; a standard-sized army, for example, may cost £150–£200 (US$225–$300) to purchase, and the paints and brushes are not a negligible expense. In addition to the cost, it may take many hundreds of hours of gluing and detailed painting to produce an aesthetically pleasing army.

Figure 1. Photograph of the author’s Salamanders space marine army. [View larger image.]

Figure 2. Photograph of the author’s Salamanders space marine army. [View larger image.]

[2.3] Once an army is painted, the player engages in battles with friends. These battles range in size and complexity from minor skirmishes with a few miniatures to mass Apocalypse battles involving many hundreds of miniatures and futuristic vehicles, using a relatively straightforward rules system developed by the company over the past two decades (Cavatore et al. 2008). Such battles are not necessarily reenactments of battles that occurred within the W40K narrative universe—in the way that, for example a historical war gamer might recreate the Battle of Waterloo or Gettysburg—but are rather generic battles or missions of the type that might take place in that universe between the different armies/races to take and hold objectives, to seize ground, or simply to annihilate the enemy. Each battle may thus be seen as a sort of fan fiction, with the players creating their own narratives through their game play within the broad context of the W40K narrative and gaming/rules canon (Fox 2001; Bryant 2009; Wirman 2009). Games Workshop’s monthly magazine, White Dwarf, publishes regular battle reports in which games played by its staff members and other Games Workshop employees are described in a narrative form, with accompanying photographs emphasizing key moments within the battle. Similar reports written by fans are also a regular feature of fan forums and, as will be discussed below, are sometimes filmed and shared with other fans via YouTube.

[2.4] Games may thus be seen as the intersection of fan creativity and the official W40K narrative and gaming/rules canons, both of which have developed over the past two decades, and which are consolidated and expanded on an ongoing basis through a combination of the official rule book, novels (produced by the Black Library, a Games Workshop subdivision), articles in White Dwarf, and the published rules supplements (codices) for each species/army. The Black Library has, for example, produced a series of novels known as the Horus Heresy. These novels tell the history of the Imperium of Man, focusing on the great schism within the imperium between heretical and loyalist space marine legions that provides a key narrative trope within the W40K universe. The Black Library also produces a number of related novels that cover the histories of other armies/races within the W40K universe. These histories are, in turn, summarized within the background section of an army’s codex, providing key source material for players to draw on when collecting and gaming with their armies.

[2.5] Fan creativity extends to other aspects of the W40K hobby—most notably, the painting, assembling, and conversion of the miniatures and models used in the game, as well as the construction of scenery and buildings required for gaming. While W40K fans are not as constrained in how they paint their armies as they would be if, for example, they were painting an army from the Napoleonic era (and they can, if they wish, invent their own armies with their own personal color schemes), there are nevertheless conventions for how the various canonical space marine and heretical Chaos space marine chapters should be painted. This information, which is often extremely detailed, is in the codex for each army, as well as in painting guides published by Games Workshop or available online. In contrast to some other forms of fandom, W40K fandom is inherently built around—and necessitates—fan production. Whereas many people would consider themselves to be fans of a particular TV show, film, novel, or even a game without necessarily having to engage in any form of fan production, it is nearly impossible to be involved in W40K fandom without producing something on some level.

[2.6] Such creativity, however, can only go so far within the W40K universe before it finds itself on a collision course with Games Workshop’s intellectual property (IP) policy (Games Workshop 2008). While W40K fan fiction is permitted as long as it is not written for profit and the author states at the top of the material that it is “an unofficial story by [name]…without permission, upon the Warhammer intellectual property owned by Games Workshop Ltd.,” fans may not produce desktop themes or have tattoos that feature Games Workshop’s trademarks. Similarly, while Web comics and animation are permitted as long as they are not produced for profit and “avoid any topics considering illegal behaviour, obscenity, or libel,” fans may not use forum avatars that feature Games Workshop’s IP. Crucially, although Games Workshop “appreciate[s] that hobbyists may…want to make movies based upon our intellectual property,” such fan films are also forbidden “due to the nuances of the law in some territories” (Games Workshop 2008).

3. W40K fan films

[3.1] If the content of YouTube is any indication, Games Workshop’s ban on fan films have little or no effect. As of August 2010, a search on YouTube brought up 28,500 videos for Warhammer 40K. In contrast, the official Games Workshop channel (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=68K7sPGFgWk) hosts only 37 videos, 25 of which are three identical advertisements dubbed into different languages for new rules systems or games. The only official W40K film released to date—the 25-minute film Inquisitor (1996), which was sold at gaming tournaments and is no longer available—was uploaded by a fan, not Games Workshop itself. On one level, then, one can view W40K fan creations as attempts by fans to fill a definite void within W40K fandom (note 2).

[3.2] In general terms, the W40K fan creations that have been uploaded to YouTube may be classified, following O’Brien and Fitzgerald’s (2006) typology of YouTube clips, as a combination of three main types of footage: copied/ripped content, transformative derivatives, and original creations. I discuss each of these in turn.

4. Copied/ripped content

[4.1] Most ripped content has its origin in officially released PC games set within the W40K universe. While there has yet to be an official W40K film, there have been a number of video games released over the course of the last two decades, such as Final Liberation (Holistic Design, 1997), Fire Warrior (Kujo Entertainment, 2003), and the Dawn of War series of strategy games (Relic Entertainment, 2004–). A great deal of the fan content available on YouTube originates from these games, with fans uploading the scenes and introductory movies from these games, or screen-capture videos of fans playing the games, sometimes talking viewers through the various levels (see Jones 2006 on speed runs). Such content has typically been uploaded as is and therefore features little if any transformation or creativity, other than added commentary. It is simply the uploading and sharing of copyrighted material. The following clip, for example, is the introductory movie to the Dawn of War PC game as it appears to the player at startup.

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Vid 1. Dawn of War Intro movie ripped and uploaded to YouTube by Irai, February 11, 2006.

5. Transformative derivatives

[5.1] Moving along a continuum toward more transformative and original content, one finds, as one does across a number of fan communities, numerous examples of fan vids within W40K fandom. In contrast to vidding in many fan communities, where emotional/relational or even erotic content is emphasized, or where vidding is used to comment on or critique the canon (Jenkins 1992; Trombley 2007; Coppa 2008, 2009), vidding within W40K fandom appears much more conservative and orthodox in its approach, seeking to literally reiterate, if not celebrate, existing canon. All the fan vids that I am aware of, for example, emphasize the inherent themes, events, and dramatis personae of the W40K universe, and they portray the various armies/races in ways congruent with their depictions in the narrative canon. Space marines, for example, are depicted as loyal, courageous warriors, fighting with an almost religious devotion for the emperor, while space orks are shown as barbaric, bloodthirsty creatures intent on destruction and pillaging. Similarly, rather than the choice of song or music offering an alternative reading of the images, the music used—which is often in the genres of industrial or heavy metal—reflects in an auditory sense and often in its lyrical content the intensity of warfare in the 41st millennium as depicted within the narrative canon. Indeed, in what is arguably a reflection of the almost exclusively young male fan base of W40K, the only emotion common to the majority of W40K fan vids is a sense of testosterone-fueled celebration of the martial themes inherent within the W40K universe. The only slash one finds in W40K fandom is that of a las-sword or space ork choppa, and the only close male relationships the esprit de corps of elite military forces in battle.

[5.2] “There Is Only War” by Silverdrake19, for example, juxtaposes images of warfare and slogans from the W40K universe with the song “Fight” by Motograter; the martial imagery is reinforced by both the extreme nature of the music and the song’s refrain, “They don’t ever live to die/Only live to fight, fight, fight!”

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Vid 2. “There Is Only War” fan vid by Silverdrake19, July 31, 2007.

[5.3] Similarly, “Space Marines ULTIMATE Tribute” by Froggars is an accolade to the imperium’s elite troops, created by juxtaposing their images and slogans with the song “Hymn of the Immortal Warriors” by Manowar (which is about a dead Viking hero entering Valhalla, not future warfare).

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Vid 3. “Space Marines ULTIMATE Tribute” fan vid by Froggars, January 5, 2008.

[5.4] This orthodoxy regarding the canon is also highlighted by the relative paucity of fan vids offering parodies or humorous readings of the W40K universe. Those W40K fan vids that do feature comedy tend to feature in-jokes rather than parody by, for example, ironically juxtaposing music, voice-overs, or statements with W40K imagery. The machinima clip “Warhammer 40000 Parody” by Jaggardos combines game play footage from Dawn of War: Dark Crusade with humorous voice-overs and music. I have only been able to find two fan vids on YouTube that engage in parody, and both of those criticize Games Workshop for banning the release of Damnatus.

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Vid 4. “Warhammer 40000 Parody” by Jaggardos, September 7, 2007.

6. Original creations

[6.1] Examination of video clips featuring original fan creations reveals three broad forms of content. First, there are battle reports where, in an extension of the previously discussed practice of reporting games as narratives, fans record and upload highlights of their games, often providing running commentary while they are playing. Second, reflecting both the hobby-based and strategic nature of W40K fandom, a number of fans have uploaded instructional videos, covering such things as painting and modeling techniques or game tactics.

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Vid 5. “Tyranid Versus Necron Warhammer 40K Battle Report Part 1″ by MiniWarGaming Channel, July 3, 2008.

[6.2] Third, there are small number of original fan films, most of which—compared to other SF fan films—are relatively unsophisticated in terms of both their plots and style, being typically short films of battles, produced using stop-motion animation. At the time of writing, there are approximately 550 such clips on YouTube, ranging in sophistication from short experimental clips to multipart films featuring music tracks and basic special effects. As an example, “Warhammer 40K Stop Motion Part 1—Hunt the Relic” by Zehzima is the story of a platoon of space marines. While searching for a lost relic from their home planet of Ultramar, they discover a group of heretical Chaos space marines near the location of the relic. Although outnumbered three to one, the space marines battle and, once reinforcements arrive, ultimately defeat their sworn enemies. As the film closes with a “to be continued” notice, a phalanx of Necrons is seen to arrive, ensuring that the space marines’ continuing hunt for the relic will involve more combat.

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Vid 6. “Warhammer 40K Stop Motion Part 1—Hunt the Relic” by Zehzima, December 24, 2008.

[6.3] Perhaps the most ambitious—and judging by their YouTube star ratings, the most popular—W40K stop-motion animations are two films by Coltsith: “Warhammer 40K: Space Hulk” and “Warhammer 40K Stop Motion Movie Pt 4.” The former, an homage to the Space Hulk board game released by Games Workshop in 1989 (recently reissued), shows a squad of space marine terminators investigating a distress call from a derelict ship that, they quickly discover, is overrun by hostile alien life-forms, while the latter shows a battle between space marines and a mob of marauding space orks.

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Vid 7. “Warhammer 40K Stop Motion Movie Pt 4″ by Coltsith, August 1, 2006.

[6.4] The great majority of original W40K fan filmmaking, then, is clearly at an early stage of development, both in terms of plotting and production values, and in its relationship to the W40K narrative canon. Most fan vids, for example, are simple slide shows with fairly rudimentary transitions, or game footage with few edits, invariably set to heavy metal/industrial music. Little or no attempt is made to use the vids to tell new stories or stage alternate readings of the canon. At most, the W40K fan vids redescribe the canon with little or no interpretation; the filmmakers seem content to remain true to canon, rather than actively trying to transform it or read it against the grain. While the battle shown in “Hunt the Relic” is not part of the W40K canon in the way the Battle of Yavin would be within the Star Wars universe, the broad motifs of lost relics and battles between heretical and loyalist space marine armies are an implicit part of the canon. The same can be said of the battle between space orks and space marines shown in “Warhammer 40K Stop Motion Movie Pt 4.” Both clips thus complement the narrative canon by showing, to use Pugh’s (2005) terms, more of the battles that take place within it—filling in some of the details of the universe by adding more battles—rather than attempting do more with the canon.

[6.5] There may be several reasons why this is the case. Primarily, it may be understood in terms of how male and female fans typically approach canon. As several commentators have noted, male fans are not only typically drawn to different forms of fan creativity than female fans (see Brooker 2002, 139, 174; Pugh 2005; Sandvoss 2005, 16; Jenkins 2006b, 43; Jones 2006, 263; Coppa 2009, 107; Long 2009, ¶3.7); they also, crucially, tend toward a more orthodox approach to canon (see, for example, the 2007–8 gender and fan studies debate at the LiveJournal community Fandebate). Jenkins (2006b, 44), for example, argued that “the compulsion to expand speculations about characters and story events beyond textual boundaries” is more of a feminine than a masculine interpretive strategy (see also Russo 2009, 128). Consequently, men feel more comfortable talking and writing about “future technologies or military lifestyle” than “pondering Vulcan sexuality, McCoy’s childhood, or Kirk’s love life” (Jenkins 2006b, 43).

[6.6] Similarly, Bob Rehak, in a LiveJournal entry dated April 18, 2008, posted to the Fandebate community, highlighted the “apparent gender split between traditionally female fans who produce work considered to be transformative” and male fans “who gravitate towards activities that uphold and extend the essence and ideology of the parent text, rather than diverting from it and working ‘against the grain.'” In particular, echoing Jenkins’s point above, he suggests that male fans are drawn more to what he terms “blueprint culture”: an interest in the technical aspects of the canon, such as schematics of the Millennium Falcon or the bridge of the USS Enterprise (see also Toten 2008). Again, this would clearly seem to be the case with those clips that deal with the more technical aspects of the W40K hobby, such as modeling and painting.

[6.7] On one level, then, the orthodox reading of the narrative canon found within W40K filmmaking may be a reflection of a male or masculine approach to canon. On another level, it may reflect the age of the filmmakers. As noted above, while many fans are in their 20s and 30s, the core audience for W40K is teenage boys. Because the teens are crucial age in the development of sexual identity, such fans may either not feel confident or believe that it is not socially acceptable among their peers to explore emotional content in their films, even in the anonymous space of the Internet (see Martino 1999, 244; Pascoe 2003, 1428; Paechter 2007). For such boys, focusing on the martial themes within the W40K universe might be perceived as much more socially acceptable among their peers, reflecting, as it does, a hegemonic understanding of masculinity (see Kline, Dyer-Witheford, and de Peuter 2003; Schut 2006; Malaby and Green 2009).

[6.8] In addition, the relatively unsophisticated nature of much W40K fan filmmaking may reflect the limitations faced by any fans attempting to produce a live-action fan film. In contrast to the primary footage that, say, a Star Wars or Star Trek fan filmmaker has access to, original W40K fan filmmakers have much less primary material to draw on, so they must turn to the raw materials of their hobby—the miniatures collections—to construct their narratives. Similarly, while replica light sabers, blasters, and phasers are readily available in toy stores and costumes may be purchased or rented, budding W40K filmmakers wishing to produce a live-action film would have to produce the weapons and costumes themselves from scratch. The cost and technical skills required to do so this are a serious barrier to the majority of the W40K fan base.

[6.9] The German W40K fan film Damnatus is therefore noteworthy for being what is to my knowledge the only attempt to date to produce a live-action fan film set within the W40K universe. Indeed, its high production values, including the use of relatively high-quality CGI and its almost 2-hour length, represent in many ways a paradigm shift within W40K fan filmmaking. However, as with the YouTube clips cited above, Damnatus is clearly an attempt to get show more of the W40K universe rather than do more with it. The film tells the story of a group of mercenaries sent into the depths of a hive city by the imperial inquisition to cleanse and purge a conclave of heretical cultists intent on summoning an ancient demonic entity that could destroy the planet. As with the YouTube clips, this is not an adaptation of a story found within the canon, but in terms of plot, setting, characters, and costumes, it is clearly derivative of the W40K canon. Its producers, in other words, were seeking to stay within the boundaries of canon rather than performing a radical reenvisioning or producing a subversive reading. This desire for canonical orthodoxy is exemplified by the way its crew contained, alongside the camera operators, computer animators, makeup artists, and costume and prop designers, an expert on the W40K canon. Despite this emphasis on canonical orthodoxy, for the last 2 years, Games Workshop has forbidden Damnatus from being screened or released. I now turn to how this ban came to be, and to assess the reception the film has had within W40K fandom.

7. Damnatus: The forbidden film

Figure 4. Screen capture of Damnatus (2005) showing the main cast. [View larger image.]

[7.1] The production of Damnatus is, in many ways, a combination of professional ambition and fan creativity. Damnatus was produced over a 4-year period by a crew of around 80 German fans led by its writer and director, the then-21-year-old Huan Vu, at a cost of around €10,000 (US$13,000), all of which was paid for by donations from the crew and from fans. Before starting filming in 2003, Vu asked Games Workshop for permission to make the film and was told “that they probably would have nothing against a fan film” on the condition that the film not be made for commercial purposes (Torwaechter, posting at Warseer, “Damnatus not allowed to be shown,” July 12, 2007). Indeed, the film also appeared to have tacit approval from Games Workshop when a small advertisement for the project appeared in the German edition of White Dwarf in January 2003, as illustrated in figure 5.


Figure 5. Advertisement for Damnatus (2005) that appeared in the German-language edition of White Dwarf, January 2003. [View larger image.]

[7.2] According to e-mail correspondence from Vu on August 12, 2009, the plan had been to distribute the film for free through downloads, with the requisite bandwidth being donated by individuals. There were also plans for 20 copies of the film to be distributed on DVDs worldwide, half for Europe and half for the rest of the world, to volunteers who would each make 10 further copies and distribute them to other people who would do the same. The 20 copies represented, in an explicit nod to the W40K narrative canon, the 20 legendary primarchs created by the emperor.

[7.3] Two years into the project, in early 2005, a legal support assistant from Games Workshop contacted Vu with a copyright disclaimer to appear at the beginning of the film. During these discussions, Vu told the company that under German copyright law, he would have “unrevocable [sic] rights” to the film as “[his] creation” (Torwächter, posting at Forenplanet, “Clarifications,” July 11, 2007). This led Games Workshop to investigate the German copyright situation; after taking legal advice, it banned the release of the film in May 2005. Vu, however, claims he did not receive this e-mail from the company’s lawyers, and he continued to work on the film in good faith, completing it the following November. When he announced this via the Damnatus Web page, Games Workshop wrote to him again to restate the ban.

[7.4] A month later, it was announced that an agreement had potentially been struck to overcome the copyright issues. This quickly broke down. After taking further, external, advice, Games Workshop amended its IP policy in mid-April 2006 to ban all fan films. Four months later, the legal and licensing head of Games Workshop, Andy Jones, wrote to Vu telling him although “the great endeavor upon which you have embarked is truly to be admired,” because German copyright law would not allow the filmmaker to assign copyright to the company, “it is impossible for us to countenance the release—for free or otherwise—of this movie project.” The company, Jones insisted, “must protect our IP. We have no choice…we cannot have elements of our intellectual property ‘universe’ owned by a third party.” Consequently, in October 2007, Vu announced on the Damnatus Web page that the project had been put on indefinite hold.

Figure 6. Screenshot of “Exterminatus” section from the Damnatus Web page (http://www.damnatus.com/seite.php?file=news), 2007. [View larger image.]

[7.5] If we are to believe the correspondence, the main issue behind the ban was not Games Workshop’s disapproval of the content of the film, but the company’s belief that allowing it to be released would threaten its control of its intellectual property. Indeed, Jones’s letter to Vu makes no mention at all of the content of the film—good or bad, subversive or orthodox. The issues for Jones were simply legal and business ones: could the company allow a third party to potentially own part of its intellectual property?

[7.6] The announcement of the ban led to vigorous debate among fans across several W40K forums. Broadly, the comments ranged across three main positions. One group of posters, while acknowledging the unfortunate position that the filmmakers found themselves in, defended Games Workshop’s decision, arguing that the blame lay rather with German copyright law. As Black Bear put it in the “Damnatus is complete! But not to be released” thread on the Bolter and Chainsword (TB&C) fan forum on November 7, 2007, post 73, “Blame the stupid law, not GW. Thay [sic] cannot allow the film to be released. They will LOSE their rights if they do…It is not their fault the law has put them in this situation, and getting upset at them is silly. If anything get upset at stupid German laws, and rant at them as THEY are what is keeping GW from giving the green light for the movie.”

[7.7] Such sentiments were echoed by Ferrata in the “Damnatus is complete! But not to be released” thread on TB&C on November 10, 2007, post 110. Ferrata argued that if Games Workshop had given the rights away to the Damnatus filmmakers, it would effectively open “the gate for people to use [Games Workshop’s] copyright, and they [would] have the backing of a previous case to back them.” Others laid the blame for the situation solely at the feet of the filmmakers, accusing them of being naive in not fully investigating the copyright issues before beginning production. Centurian99, in the “More death of Damnatus news” thread on DakkaDakka (DD) on November 6, 2007, called it “simply idiotic,” “moronic,” and “utterly irresponsible” (p. 1) for the filmmakers to have begun shooting without securing the IP license first. Similarly, Brettz123 in the “More death of Damnatus news” thread on DD on November 6, 2007, argued “the Damnatus guys might have wanted to consult a lawyer themselves and find out what the relevant legal issues would have been.” For him, “It really isn’t GWs responsibility to tell them what they can and can’t do. It is the Damnatus people who are responsible for their own actions. They should have done the research. To me that is the bottom line” (p. 3).

[7.8] Indeed, a number of posters argued that perhaps Games Workshop had banned the release of the film either because, to quote Flagg07 in the “More death of Damnatus news” thread on DD on November 7, 2007, “its a steaming pile of _______ (insert choice phrase) that they don’t want to be connected to” (p. 2) or, as Luthor Huss speculated in the “Yet another brilliant move by GW…” thread on the Warhammer Forum, on July 12, 2007, because the company “could have a deal with another movie firm for a franchise, so they dont want any unofficial movies coming out first and stealing its thunder” (p. 1).

[7.9] A middle position was adopted by those fans who believed that the situation was due more to confusion and mutual misunderstanding than a conspiracy by Games Workshop against the fans and filmmakers. Both sides, posters such as Kilkrazy, in the “More death of Damnatus news” thread on DD on July 8, 2007, argued, had mishandled the situation to the ultimate detriment of project:

[7.10] From my experience [of working in a large IP-related corporation] it is quite likely that GW simply did not join up all the dots until near the end, when the need to resolve the situation became urgent. Up until then, the Damnatus guys must have thought they were “talking to GW” and that “GW approved their project” though actually they just talked to a couple of guys at GW who liked the idea, but had no authority to form contracts, and some stuff on their project appeared in WD which is edited by some other guys who also probably liked it but again these guys had no authority to make contracts. Once the project neared completion, the corporate legal department got involved, and the whole thing was stamped on. (p. 3)

[7.11] The vocal majority of posters, however, blamed Games Workshop, arguing that the company had not only mishandled the situation but was now, to quote Wolfstan, in the “More death of Damnatus news” thread on DD on November 8, 2007, “taking a sledgehammer to a nut” (p. 3). A number also questioned, as Vu did in an e-mail to Andy Jones responding to the ban published on the Damnatus forum (Torwächter, posting at the Sphärentor forum, August 2, 2007, “Letter from GW,” p. 1), why companies such as Lucasfilm and Paramount had no problem with fan films (including ones made in Germany), but Games Workshop did. As Rev Nice put it on the “GW goes wrong again” thread on Frothers Unite! UK forum on July 12, 2007, “If Lucasfilm are quite happy to allow fans to make their own films based on their IP (and expanding on it) then surely a comparative minnow like GW can be reasonable” (p. 1). Others expressed disappointment that the company had seemingly passed up the opportunity for free advertising, and as Iamfanboy put it in the “Damnatus is complete! But not to be released” thread on TB&C on November 7, 2007, post 72, the chance to revitalize “the 40k universe by exposing the game to a whole new audience in the same way that Dawn of War did.” Indeed, the general tenor of the fan reaction to the ban may be seen by the titles of some of the forum threads relating to the ban: “Yet another brilliant move by GW…” (Warhammer Forum) and “GW goes wrong again” (Frothers Unite! UK).

[7.12] In articulating their anger against the ban, a number of fans linked Games Workshop’s decision with a wider set of grievances against the company. To quote Steve Veto on the “GW goes wrong again” thread on Frothers Unite! UK on July 12, 2007, “For the last 15 or so years GW hasn’t really given a toss for the fans/mugs (delete where applicable)—it’s all about the bottom line and protecting investors dividends” (p. 2). For these fans, the Damnatus ban was not the result of a misunderstanding or Games Workshop’s not connecting the dots until it was too late; rather, it was symptomatic of what they allege to be the company’s negative attitude toward fans. Polonius, in the “More death of Damnatus news” thread on DD on November 9, 2007, put it this way:

[7.13] I suppose GW had a meeting, where legal made its case to nix the film, and marketing made it’s argument that’ll bring ill will to the company. Part of me simply envisions this shadowy figure sitting through the entire meeting, then quietly saying, “We raised prices, the fans stayed. We cancelled specialist games, the fans stayed. We won’t answer rules questions, our magazine is a monthly catalog, and despite our core demo being adults, we continue to dumb done the product for 10 year olds. And you honestly think vetoing a german fan movie is going to hurt us? Nothing can hurt us, we are invincible!”

[7.14] And then everybody around the table laughs, and laughs, and laughs.

[7.15] And then they eat a kitten. (p. 3)

[7.16] Some fans went as far as to suggest possible strategies for either overcoming the ban or trying to make Games Workshop reverse its decision, ranging from “accidentally” leaking the film to YouTube or BitTorrent to collective letter-writing campaigns, boycotting the company’s products, and protesting at the 2007 Games Days in Germany and the UK. Others asked whether it was possible to reedit the film to remove or black out all the elements covered by Games Workshop’s IP, or release the script of the film or an animated version, or whether the company could buy the film from Vu for a nominal fee and then distribute it, possibly as a giveaway in White Dwarf or as a download from its Web site. The filmmakers also launched an online petition urging the Games Workshop management “to reconsider their decision and allow the publication of DAMNATUS as well as the creation of future films by us fans,” and provided a list of several things fans could do to support the film.

Figure 7. Screenshot of “War Reports” section from the Damnatus Web page (http://www.damnatus.com/seite.php?file=news), 2007. [View larger image.]

[7.17] Two brief clips parodying the situation were uploaded onto YouTube. The first, “Damnatus: The Forbidden Film” by Halbaradin, shows cartoon representations of Games Workshop management sitting around a boardroom table, one of whom is smirking while holding up a piece of paper titled “IP Policy.” In the background, a French-language song is (inaccurately) subtitled to tell in lyric form what it terms the tragic story of the Damnatus ban. The finale of the film shows sticks of dynamite exploding, destroying W40K imagery, while the subtitles read “WE WANT DAMNATUS / GET OUT GAME WORKSHOP / YOU’RE NOT ALLOWED / TO DISAPPOINT US / WE WANT DAMNATUS.”

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Vid 8. “Damnatus: The Forbidden Movie” by Halbaradin, July 27, 2007.

[7.18] In the second clip, “Damnatus Petition—5000 and Counting,” posted by Vu in early August 2007, a caped man approaches a seated one, who turns and shows him a script, saying, “We want to make a fan movie.” On seeing the script, the caped man shouts “Fan movie? You must not!!!” and thrusts an IP contract toward the camera before hitting the hopeful filmmaker with it. When the filmmaker responds by telling the caped man, “This is madness!” the latter, in an apparent homage to the film 300 (2006), kicks him onto the floor with the words “Madness? This is Games Workshop!!!”

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Vid 9. “Damnatus Petition: 5000 and Counting” by HuVuTorwaechter, August 3, 2007.

[7.19] None of these strategies has been successful. At the time of writing, Damnatus is still officially banned from being released, and Vu, having abandoned hope that this position will change, has moved on to another project: Die Farbe, an adaptation of the H. P. Lovecraft’s 1927 story “The Colour Out of Space” (http://www.die-farbe.com/main_e.html). Nor would it appear, judging from Games Workshop’s share price and sales, that the ban has adversely affected the company financially (Williams 2009). The stalemate was nevertheless dramatically broken in December 2008, when, as many fans posting on forums had hoped, an MPEG version of Damnatus, complete with optional English-language subtitles, was posted on the infamous file-sharing Web site, the Pirate Bay, whence it was shared—and continues to be shared—on a number of similar sites. In October 2009, the complete film was also uploaded onto YouTube, but it has since been removed as a result of Games Workshop’s copyright claim. There are also signs the film is itself being appropriated by fans, who are posting their own trailers for the film on YouTube and incorporating elements of it into their own films.

8. Conclusions

[8.1] Three main points may be summarized from the preceding discussion. First, while W40K is built around fan creativity of sorts, this creativity has clear limits, as defined by both Games Workshop’s IP policy and, it would appear, the fans themselves. While there is clearly scope for different types of stories to be told that would flesh out the simplistic outlines of the W40K narrative universe, at present, W40K fan filmmakers appear to be content to use their creativity to stay within the boundaries of the canon, rather than attempting to transform or comment on it. Such filmmakers may be highly creative in what they produce, but for them, the canon, like the published rules of the W40K game, provides clear parameters for creativity, rather than acting as a jumping-off point. Within this context, creativity appears to be judged in terms of how accurately a film portrays the W40K universe—its characters, species, and ambience—rather than the extent to which filmmakers transform this material to tell a different story or stage an alternate reading.

[8.2] Why this is the case is open to speculation. However, I argue that it stems from a combination of the age and gender of the filmmakers and, to a lesser extent, the lack of primary film material and readily available props, when compared to the Star Wars or Star Trek universes. As noted above, the consensus within the literature on gender and fandom is that not only are male and female fans drawn to different sorts of fandom, but they also tend to express their fannish creativity in different ways and with differing levels of canonical orthodoxy. On one level, the canonical orthodoxy of the W40K filmmakers may be understood in terms of gender. However, it can also be understood as a consequence of the typical age of W40K fans. Such adolescents probably feel more comfortable celebrating the martial themes of the W40K universe than they do exploring emotional themes or sexual identities through their films.

[8.3] Second, the reaction to the Damnatus ban illustrates the increasing role online fan communities play as a potential voice in dialogue with rights holders. Although neither the complaints nor the strategies suggested to protest against the ban were ultimately successful, as is often the case, the ban created a flourishing debate both among fans and between fans and Games Workshop. Debate topics included the limits imposed on creativity by copyright laws, the perceived responsibilities that rights holders have (or should have) toward fans, and the legal complexities of fan production. Such discussions are, however, inherently asymmetrical, with fans being placed in a relatively powerless situation through a combination of possible legal sanctions and love of W40K. Huan Vu could not simply ignore Games Workshop’s legal representatives and release the film without risking legal repercussions—a point he made clear in his forum postings. Equally, although some fans are critical of the ban and what they perceive to be the company’s emphasis on profit over fans’ needs and desires, they are still loyal to the W40K universe despite their reservations about the company. Indeed, all but the bitterest fans continue to buy its products.

[8.4] Last, but by no means least, while it appears unlikely a W40K fan film with the ambitions of Damnatus will be seen again, dozens of more modest W40K fan vids and clips have been created and uploaded onto YouTube since the ban, most of which are in breach of Games Workshop’s IP policy. Games Workshop may therefore have won one particular battle, but, like the game’s epic conflict depicted in the grim future of the 41st millennium—with its ongoing bloody skirmishes—the war over copyright and the issue of fan creativity within the W40K universe is far from over.

9. Notes

1. I requested an interview with the legal and licensing divisions of Games Workshop to discuss fan films but was refused.

2. For the last decade, there have been rumors that an official W40K film would be produced (see, for example, Aldrick 2001). One CGI film, Bloodquest, was begun in 2001 by Exile Films, which planned to release the film in 2002. It was subsequently canceled, and it appears the company no longer exists, although a brief trailer for the film is still available on YouTube. In September 2009, it was announced that Codex Pictures, a London-based company that had previously worked on the Lego BIONICLE films, would be producing a straight-to-DVD 70-minute CGI film entitled Ultramarines.

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Originally published through Transformative Works and Cultures, September 2010. We thank them for their blessing in allowing us to duplicate this insightful article at the Fan Film Follies.

A huge thank you to the original author of the piece, Mr. John Walliss.

The original article can be found here.

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