Star Trek has always been about hope, and the shiny new future that awaits us all. Axanar, which at $1.1 million in crowdfunding is the largest and most expensive crowd-funded fan film project ever, presents itself as a prequel to the original series. Axanar chronicles the events leading up to the condition of the galaxy when Captain James T. Kirk took command of the Enterprise.
As a production, Axanar, may be in some serious trouble. The project is now the subject of a shiny new lawsuit. Paramount and CBS filed an infringement suit against the Axanar production company last Friday in California federal court. “The Axanar Works infringe Plaintiffs’ works by using innumerable copyrighted elements of Star Trek, including its settings, characters, species, and themes,” states the complaint.
According to a description of the movie on the defendants’ website, “Axanar takes place 21 years before the events of ‘Where no Man Has Gone Before,’ the first Kirk episode of the original Star Trek. Axanar is the story of Garth of Izar, the legendary Starfleet captain who is Captain Kirk’s hero. Axanar tells the story of Garth and his crew during the Four Years War, the war with the Klingon Empire that almost tore the Federation apart. Garth’s victory at Axanar solidified the Federation and allowed it to become the entity we know in Kirk’s time. It is the year 2245 and the war with the Klingons ends here.”
The producers, led by Alec Peters, aim to make a studio-quality film. As the pitch to investors put it, “While some may call it a ‘fan film’ as we are not licensed by CBS, Axanar has professionals working in front and behind the camera, with a fully-professional crew — many of whom have worked on Star Trek itself — who ensure Axanar will be the quality of Star Trek that all fans want to see.” What the fans see isn’t what Paramount wants to see. All Paramount sees is a trademark fight. A meeting last August between CBS and Peters gave the producer the impression that so long as they didn’t make money from Axanar that they were in the clear. “CBS has a long history of accepting fan films,” Peters said. “I think Axanar has become so popular that CBS realizes that we’re just making their brand that much better.”
Paramount obviously had a different perception of the situation.
Paramount and CBS, represented by attorneys at Loeb & Loeb, are now demanding an injunction as well as damages for direct, contributory and vicarious copyright infringement. Although the plaintiffs have allowed ample cosplaying over the years and even permitted other derivatives like amateur Star Trek shows to circulate, the lawsuit clearly draws the line at professional quality films that use “copyrighted elements” like Vulcans and Klingons, Federation starships, phasers and stuff like the “look and feel of the planet, the characters’ costumes, their pointy ears and their distinctive hairstyle.”
They’re going after Axanar Productions, Inc., Alec Peters as an individual, a couple of handfuls of John Doe’s to be named later, and they are asking for a penalty of $150,000 for each person involved, plus an injunction to stop the film from being completed. Noteworthy is the fact that apart from Peters, Loeb & Loeb actually has no idea who else might be working on the movie, which means they can’t have done very much research on the situation or the film itself. The apparent result of this would be to simply take all the money the fans had donated to see this fan film made and award it to the plaintiffs instead. In a nutshell, they see the million dollars raised by Axanar Productions, and they want it. All of it.
Here’s the full complaint. And now, here’s the text of the actual copyright law Paramount wants to invoke.
While common sense tells us that CBS/Paramount have the right to protect its intellectual property, claiming a copyright violation here using this as the support for their legal action is not clear cut. For example:
- The Fair Use Doctrine suggests that so long as a work is not distributed for profit, Axanar may have protection there. However, if it can be shown that the existence of a particular work substantially threatens the copyright holder’s ability to benefit or profit from their intellectual property that this copyright holder may be entitled to protections.
- Paramount’s lawsuit may also be in conflict with prior court decisions regarding Fair Use, supporting the notion of transformative work. This is where a new work uses an existing one as a jumping off point and uses it to create something substantially new or that presents new ideas or concepts. (In other words, you can’t write your own Harry Potter novel – but you can create your own characters and settings and put them in new settings that will seem familiar to the reader.)
- And lastly, Paramount appears arbitrarily selective about who they decide to sue. Other fan productions go on their merry way, such as Star Trek Continues. Paramount will have to explain to the court why this production is a problem but not the others, and why for the past decade they have not been aggressively prosecuting other fan created projects.
Paramount and CBS have a long history of intensely toxic relationships with their own fan base. From 1995 to 2005 (about the first ten years of the existence of the Internet) they were actively engaged in shutting down Star Trek fan web sites for as little as posting pictures or fan fiction, and demanding that fan clubs stop showing episodes at club meetings, and expecting to be paid franchise licenses by the fan clubs themselves. This black period in Trek fandom history was called The Viacom Crackdown. It nearly killed Trek fandom, and the fans haven’t forgotten.
Axanar may have gotten the attention of the Paramount legal department because they think it will hurt ticket sales for Star Trek Beyond, due out July 22, 2016. Axanar is currently scheduled for release the same month, so Paramount may have a point. Timing, apparently, is everything.