Copyright & The Fate of Fan Fiction
Studios will mount a lawsuit to maintain their copyright. Space is the final frontier, but it’s no longer made in Hollywood’s basements. Production gear today is more affordable; allowing devotees of an iconic sci-fi franchise to fashion their own costumes, characters and adventures: boldly going where no fan fiction has gone before.
Star Trek is replete with fandom. Since the airing of Gene Roddenberry’s original series 50 years ago, revenue from feature films, spin-off series and merchandise sales total enough dollars to send real crews to the moon.
The franchise longevity is due in no small part to dedicated fans.
Many of these ‘Trekkies’ feel the world on screen is rich with unexplored stories and set out to make a piece of it their own. They build screen-accurate sets and write new episodes of the classic series. For the most part, their efforts are not well financed; their production values cringe worthy and their audiences limited.
Secretly, we’ve always wanted to make one too.
Prelude to Axanar
Alec Peters is a long time fan of Star Trek and former archivist of Star Trek props for CBS Consumer Products. In 2013, he acts in an episode of the fan film series Star Trek: Phase II. In it, he revisits Garth of Izar, an obscure character from the 1960s episode, “Whom Gods Destroy.”
Following the release of the fan episode, Peters sets out to produce and star in a prequel project that he wrote 20 years ago. The script is about Garth of Izar’s big moment set before the events of Roddenberry’s original series.
To raise funds through a crowd-funding campaign, a 20-minute teaser premiers online in 2014. Prelude to Axanar plays like briefer from a future history channel and is the sleekest looking fan film to come from the community.
The proof-of-concept short helps raise over a million dollars through Kickstarter and Indiegogo to finance a feature. The quality of the short is a surprise, and it has performances from Trek alumni actors (J.G Hertzler, Tony Todd, Gary Graham and Kate Vernon) and Battlestar Galactica’s Richard Hatch.
The studios take notice. In late 2015, Paramount Pictures and CBS file an injunction to halt the production of the feature length fan film. Citing copyright infringement and theft of intellectual property, the Axanar team stop shooting and prepare to go to the courts.
The Plaintiffs & Defendants
It is easy to see where the studios have grounds to file their lawsuit. The Axanar team, though not using established characters per-say, are lifting concepts, language and aliens that (when mixed together) they interpret as violation of copyright. And the million dollars Axanar has in the bank is easily the largest of any unofficial Star Trek production.
The studios will have no control of the product. No way to monetize off of the final release. Which would be free online. Curiously, they seek no damages from similar fan productions. The lawsuit is a shock to many of them, who stop work on their projects until a settlement is reached.
“[The lawsuit] was not an appropriate way to deal with fans. (…) We all, fans of Star Trek, are part of this world.”
Abrams says that the film’s director, Justin Lin is reaching out to Paramount Pictures and CBS, asking them to retract the lawsuit.
And that’s a good thing. Surely the studios’ lengthy legal battles would drain the fan producers and cancel the film. This would set a precedent, and deter the whole fan fiction community from creating quality work over fear of breaching copyright.
Moving Beyond Copyright
It’s just as easy to see why the studios are withdrawing the lawsuit. Though they likely would win, a legal grudge match risks frustrating loyal fans responsible for the success of the intellectual property in question. A fan base with a dedication keeping the characters in pop culture for half a century. Their letter campaign to NBC, pleading them keep the original series on the airwaves in the 1960s is an example of how keen they can be.
Dropping the lawsuit comes as the new movie is set for theatres in July and a new television series is announced. Each potentially worth hundreds of millions of more dollars for the studios. Why alienate your audience?
And although JJ Abrams says it is history – there are still legal proceedings and deadlines that must be met to reach a settlement. Technically, the lawsuit is still going on and now the Axanar producers are countersuing Paramount Pictures and CBS (mainly for legal costs incurred).
The question of who owns what could surface again when another, even bigger production attempts to warp online. Dancing with copyright is a dangerous enterprise.
If you’re curious about what the rest of the Star Trek fan series can do – here are a couple recommendations.
These fans are great examples of what happens when copyright is loose and imaginations are free.
Check back for our humble thoughts on how this story continues.