Disney Owns Media Companies, Theme Parks … and a Religion

by Raizel Liebler

Star Wars religious iconography by Chey Chao
Star Wars religious iconography by Chey Chao

One of my favorite classes in college focused on American experiences of religion, especially on American created or modified religion or religious movements, including Shakers and the Nation of Islam, and the plethora of 19th Century religious movements — the Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons), Christian Scientists, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Seventh Day Adventists.

But the release for the new Star Wars movie is also a good reminder that there are more recent American-created religions. Yes, there is Pastafarianism, but more importantly for fandom there is Jediism.

Regardless of whether those that listed Jediism as their religion in the 2001 UK Census were “joking” or not, for that Census, it was the fourth most popular religion listed. The BBC said that “390,127 people – or 0.7% of the population – described themselves as Jedi.”

The basic concepts of the Jedi Church are listed on their website here. But listed differently by the Temple of the Jedi Force,

Jediism is a religion based on the observance of the Force, a ubiquitous and metaphysical power that a Jedi (a follower of Jediism) believes to be the underlying, fundamental nature of the universe. Jediism finds its roots in philosophies similar to those presented in an epic space opera called “Star Wars”. It is a religion in and of itself.

The Jedi religion is an inspiration and a way of life for many people throughout the world who take on the mantle of Jedi. Jedi apply the principles, ideals, philosophies and teachings of Jediism in a practical manner within their lives.

To some, all of this seems ridiculous. However, a religion based on texts that are controlled by a  set few, who at the time or later are viewed as inspired by a higher force, does form the basis of many religions. And as Wikipedia states “Many religions have narratives, symbols, and sacred histories that are intended to explain the meaning of life and/or to explain the origin of life or the Universe.”

Statue of Yoda
Statue of Yoda

To give an incredibly simplistic view on United States legal views towards religion, what matters is not that someone’s religious belief is connected with an organized (or traditional) religion, but that their belief is “sincerely held.” So those that sincerely hold beliefs based on Jediism cannot be discriminated against within the workplace, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, for example.

So with the sale of the Star Wars intellectual property — including copyrights and trademarks — from George Lucas to the Disney Corporation, arrived with a huge history — and series of canonical works for fans. According to Bloomberg BusinessWeek:

[Lucasfilm] maintained a database called the Holocron, named after a crystal cube powered by the Force. The real-world Holocron lists 17,000 characters in the Star Wars universe inhabiting several thousand planets over a span of more than 20,000 years. It was quite a bit for Disney to process. So Lucas also provided the company with a guide, Pablo Hidalgo. A founding member of the Star Wars Fan Boy Association, Hidalgo is now a “brand communication manager” at Lucasfilm. “The Holocron can be a little overwhelming,” says Hidalgo, who obsesses over canonical matters such as the correct spelling of Wookiee and the definitive list of individuals who met with Yoda while he was hiding in the swamps of Dagobah.

For fans (and for those who follow the faith of the Jedi — however defined), this sale was A BIG DEAL.

Star Wars has an amazingly broad expanded universe that includes so much beyond the original and prequel trilogy — all of the officially licensed, fictional material produced by George Lucas, including books, comic books, and video games. The internal fan fights of what is and isn’t canonical — and part of the expanded universe are legendary. For example, from a random page on the Star Wars Wiki, Wookiepedia, “Although their canonical status is ambiguous, these pieces are regarded as more reliable than other apocrypha, and material originating in them has reappeared in more recent canon sources.”

So now the Disney Corporation, which owns a locale with the tagline of “The Happiest Place on Earth”, all Disney-related EVERYTHING, a film studio, the ABC network, several cable stations, including all of the ESPNs, and more — owns what happens to the Star Wars Universe.

As a former Star Wars fan, who read Expanded Universe books (I know about Mara Jade), I don’t personally care what happens to the story. My personal investment ended long enough ago that wistful childhood memories aren’t enough to get me to care again. But the Star Wars Universe isn’t my bae or my religion, so I can choose not to care.

But for those who are true believers, all of the possibilities matter. Disney could make Princess Leia an official “Disney Princess”, shoehorn Darth Maul into being a villain on Once Upon A Time, or create a House of Mouse-style Christmas special that rivals the 70s original. Because they own Star Wars!

The idea of religious texts being protected by intellectual property also isn’t as strange as it seems as first. Religious organizations want to protect their texts from being changed in ways they don’t approve, but usually grant a license for their works to be used for religious purposes, like within services.

What this means is that while Disney owns the copyright and other rights to the sacred texts of those who believe in Jediism, there is nothing Disney can do to prevent people from having a “sincerely held” belief in those texts. Perhaps there will be a schism — where what Disney does in future seems too different from the works produced by George Lucas to be followed by those who believe. Or not.

But for now, within U.S. law, considering there isn’t an overall “religious” exception to intellectual property laws, a multibillion dollar for-profit corporation, Disney, owns and can do what they want with works that some sincerely held believers are the basis for their religious beliefs. And these religious texts will not enter the public domain for quite some time.

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