On the questionable legality of Star Wars stamps

For my job, I frequently have to go to the post office, which is conveniently right next door.  Right now, they’re gearing up for their big Star Wars celebration, in honor of the 30th anniversary of the movies. One of the things being advertised at the moment is the stamp design vote contest. There is a poster featuring all the designs on the wall right next to one of the check-out stations, which I have noticed before, but didn’t think much about it.

This time in the post office, though, there were several people ahead of me in line, and I was entertaining myself by listening to other people’s conversations. The guy who happened to be at the counter just then was studying the poster while the postal employee was getting his stuff ready, and he said something I didn’t expect. What was it? He asked her if the Star Wars stamp designs were legal, because they had people in them, and those people weren’t really dead yet. She replied that she and the other employees had wondered the same thing.

I have to admit, it hadn’t even occurred to me before this that there must be rules about what can and cannot be on a stamp. I’ve admired the artwork on the various new stamps that come out on a fairly regular basis, (I was really fond of the Hershey’s kiss one that came out for Valentine’s Day this year,) but I didn’t really think about how the various designs were chosen. So, of course, I looked it up.

As it turns out, stamp designs in the US are now regulated and chosen by the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee, a group of 15 people who meet four times a year. Well, to be more accurate, the design ideas are selected by this committee, and then their advice is passed on to the US Postal Service for final authorization. The USPS then has its art directors choose selected artists to “execute the designs.” According to the USPS Stamp Subject Selection Criteria, the designs for stamps are subject to the following guidelines:  

1. It is a general policy that U.S. postage stamps and stationery primarily will feature American or American-related subjects.

2. No living person shall be honored by portrayal on U.S. postage.

3. Commemorative stamps or postal stationery items honoring individuals usually will be issued on, or in conjunction with significant anniversaries of their birth, but no postal item will be issued sooner than five years after the individual’s death. The Committee will not accept or consider proposals for a subject until at least three years after his/her death. The only exception to the five-year rule is the issuance of stamps honoring deceased U.S. presidents. They may be honored with a memorial stamp on the first birth anniversary following death.

4. Events of historical significance shall be considered for commemoration only on anniversaries in multiples of 50 years.

5. Only events, persons, and themes of widespread national appeal and significance will be considered for commemoration. Events, persons or themes of local or regional significance may be recognized by a philatelic or special postal cancellation, which may be arranged through the local postmaster.

6. Stamps or stationery items shall not be issued to honor fraternal, political, sectarian, or service/charitable organizations. Stamps or stationery shall not be issued to promote or advertise commercial enterprises or products. Commercial products or enterprises might be used to illustrate more general concepts related to American culture.

7. Stamps or stationery items shall not be issued to honor cities, towns, municipalities, counties, primary or secondary schools, hospitals, libraries, or similar institutions. Due to the limitations placed on annual postal programs and the vast number of such locales, organizations and institutions in existence, it would be difficult to single out any one for commemoration.

8. Requests for observance of statehood anniversaries will be considered for commemorative postage stamps only at intervals of 50 years from the date of the state’s first entry into the Union.[…]

9. Stamps or stationery items shall not be issued to honor religious institutions or individuals whose principal achievements are associated with religious undertakings or beliefs.

10. Semipostal stamps are designed to raise funds for causes determined to be in the national public interest and appropriate. Semipostal stamps are sold for a price above their postage value. The differential between the sales price and the postage value of semipostal stamps consists of an amount…to be given to other executive agencies in furtherance of specified causes. […]

11. Requests for commemoration of universities and other institutions of higher education shall be considered only for stamped cards and only in connection with the 200th anniversaries of their founding.

12. No stamp shall be considered for issuance if one treating the same subject has been issued in the past 50 years. The only exceptions to this rule are traditional themes such as national symbols and holidays.

So, by these guidelines, the Star Wars stamps are possibly questionable by rules 2-4. Presumably the philatelist in the post office and the postal employee were thinking about rules 2 and 3, which state that no living person can be honored on a stamp. The postal employee pointed out that the stamps are probably considered to be portraying fictional characters, rather than the actors, in which case, since they were never real, they can’t actually ever die. Given that the stamps all feature drawings of scenes from the movies, rather than actual stills, this seems like a pretty good argument.

However, what about rule 4? This states that historical events will only be commemorated on “anniversaries in multiples of 50 years.” Provided that we consider the release of the Star Wars movies to be an historic event, this is only the 30th anniversary. Hmmmm.

It is, however, arguably in agreement with rule 5, in that it is a theme of widespread national appeal, and I’m all for the mainstreaming of more geek culture. I also suppose it doesn’t violate rule 1, because the movies were American-made, even if they did not portray actual American culture, because, you know, they were in space. They don’t even mention Earth. But rule 1 says only stamps have to be primarily of American-related subjects.

With rule 6, though, we run into the problem with not supporting commercial enterprises unless using the product or enterprise “to illustrate more general concepts related to American culture.” I wonder what American cultural concept Star Wars illustrates? That we like movies?

3 Responses to On the questionable legality of Star Wars stamps

  1. TheGnat says:

    I don’t think there’s any way out of the rule 4 issue.
    For rule 6, it’s a Hollywood classic, and it speaks to ideals that are very much American (at least to Americans): highly individualist characters, clear-cut lines between good and evil, and Han Solo is basically a space cowboy. And don’t forget the importance of family!

    As to breakign the rules, they *are* called “guidelines”, so I guess they can fudge them when they think they’ve got a really cool idea. Though I think if it’s to commerate the 30th anniversary of Star Wars, the prequel stuff shouldn’t be on the stamps. (can you tell I didn’t like those movies?)

  2. Matthew says:

    I agree that the 30th anniversary really doesn’t fit with the guidelines, but I haven’t really got a problem with that. The Post Office has to break even and if a wacky series of stamps will help with that, more power to them. I may be biased because I like the original unedited trilogy a great deal, but I think that the Star Wars trilogy had an impact on American culture. It certainly had a big impact on how subsequent movies were made and marketed.

    Having said that, I’ve actually always found it more sketchy when the post office releases stamps commemorating non-historical things that are not in the public domain. You want a series of stamps that covers the collected works of Mark Twain, OK. Star Wars stamps are an advertisement for Star Wars products. Even if LucasCo isn’t getting an out an out cut of these things (I don’t know the answer to that), I’m sure it’s hoping that the stamps will increase the value of its intellectual property, and lead to more purchases of Star Wars related products. Should the Federal Government really be doing that?

    I would personally interpret Rule 6 regarding commecial enterprises to be about a particular section of industry. Something along the lines of “Celebrating American Steel!” or something like that, not “Celebrating Carnegie Steel!”, which is what I think of when I hear about these Star Wars stamps. A series of stamps relating to the movies in general would certainly fit in with American culture (many of you may remember our 1930’s horror movies series of stamps on our wedding invitations to those we thought might appreciate the humor), but celebrating a particular and still highly active product seems a bit beyond to pale to me at least, no matter how big a Star Wars fan I am.

  3. […] miscellany: 5/4/07: On the questionable legality of Star Wars stamps, possibly the geekiest thing I have ever […]

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