In what appears to be a preemptive strike to protect the multi-million-dollar licensing business expected to be generated by the upcoming release of its new Star Wars film, Lucasfilm Ltd. has filed a lawsuit against Little, Brown Co., charging the publisher with copyright and trademark infringement over Little, Brown's recently released The Unauthorized Star Wars Compendium by Ted Edwards.

In published reports, officials at Lucasfilm claimed the book infringes the Star Wars trademark and copyrights in the lucrative Star Wars publishing galaxy. Lucasfilm officials claimed that "characters and events, as well as the name Star Wars, are Lucasfilm's valuable property. We can't sit back and let others tarnish, abuse or confuse the public about this property."

As PW went to press, executives at Little, Brown had yet to see a copy of the Lucasfilm complaint. In a prepared statement, the company said it could not respond to specific charges. However, the publisher, which is a subsidiary of Time Warner, also noted that while "we have tremendous respect for copyright... we believe that the First Amendment gives wide berth to journalists to comment on popular culture.... We feel we have complied with guidelines set forth in recent court cases."

Sarah Crichton, publisher at Little, Brown, told PW that she was perplexed by the suit: "Our lawyers looked at the book carefully before publication and we had it examined by outside legal counsel, experts with a lot of experience in copyright law. We weren't playing fast and loose with the rules."

The Lucasfilm lawsuit reflects recent aggressive efforts by the copyright holders of popular films and TV shows to discourage unsanctioned -- and unlicensed -- merchandise and often even fan Web sites. Publishers as well as fans are beginning to complain that creative works like the Star Wars series are so vastly popular and have such a pervasive cultural impact that these suits suppress legitimate commentary and First Amendment rights.

A good example is a 1997 infringement suit filed against Carol Publishing by Paramount Pictures, owner at the time of the Star Trek copyright. The suit was filed over a humor book called The Joy of Trek: How to Enhance Your Relationship with a Star Trek Fan by Samuel Ramer. Steve Schragis, publisher of Carol Publishing, told PW that the book is a "humorous analysis. You have to talk about the characters." But Paramount's suit charged infringement because the book mentions all 220 episodes of the popular TV show.

Schragis said he's not surprised at the Little, Brown suit. "There are no clear-cut rules for what is fair use -- only guidelines -- and publishers need a definite answer," he said. Schragis noted that Joy of Trek also passed prepublication legal review: "Our lawyers thought it was great and they still think it complies." Schragis said the 1997 suit against Carol is still pending. Currently Carol Publishing is prohibited from further distribution of the book, but booksellers are allowed to sell what they have. "Oral arguments will begin in federal court in April," he said, "and there could be a ruling by the early spring. Star Trek may produce one of the most important copyright rulings in recent history."