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UPDATE: Studios Avoid Trial and Settle With Star Trek Fan Film Makers

Teaser image for Axanar Star Trek fan film

Are CBS and Paramount Correct in Their Treatment of Star Trek Fan Films?

According to THR, the current Star Trek rights holders Paramount (the movies) and CBS (the TV series) have decided to settle a copyright lawsuit started in December 2015 against Alec Peters and his Axanar Star Trek fan film project rather than go forward with the scheduled January 31, 2017, trial. Peters had raised money for his fan film, Prelude to Axanar, through crowdfunding and hired a variety of professionals (including actors such as Battlestar Galactica’s Richard Hatch and Candyman actor Tony Todd) to help him make a YouTube short and script a planned feature film, which focused on a Starfleet Captain and his victory in a war with the Klingons that was referenced in the original series.

According to a joint statement from all three parties, “Paramount Pictures Corporation, CBS Studios Inc., Axanar Productions, Inc. and Alec Peters are pleased to announce that the litigation regarding Axanar’s film Prelude to Axanar and its proposed film Axanar has been resolved. Axanar and Mr. Peters acknowledge that both films were not approved by Paramount or CBS and that both works crossed boundaries acceptable to CBS and Paramount relating to copyright law.

The source of contention was primarily that Peters was using arguably copyrighted elements, such as the iconic Vulcan ears, the Klingon language, and an “obscure character” from the original series. (As I understand it, the character is Garth of Izar, a former Starfleet captain who served prior to Kirk and is one of his personal heroes, and who showed up in the season 3 episode “Whom Gods Destroy.“)

Many people were surprised when the lawsuit was announced, as Star Trek fan films (even very involved ones) have been a part of the landscape since the original series and haven’t drawn The Wrath of Khan the wrath of the studio’s legal teams until now. However, the professional quality of the Axanar product, combined with the various copyrighted elements and amount of money involved is apparently what sparked the suit. Basically, the studios make money off both Star Trek movies (last year’s Star Trek Beyond pulled in $343 million at the worldwide box office) and TV series (Star Trek: Discovery launches later this year), and they don’t want the competition to start making money from and/or potentially harm the brands they’ve built over decades of hard work, and plan to keep building well into the future.

The THR piece is well worth reading for those interested in this case and provides a lot of additional shading on the lawsuit itself and implications, but there are two other quick pieces of information I wanted to highlight.

First, David Kluft, an attorney THR talked with who was written about Star Trek litigation before, said that this case, in particular, was important because “There’s never really been a trial over fan fiction before.” He also added, referring to Peters, that “You got sued because you are too good. It’s a compliment.

Second, part of what CBS and Paramount would have been deciding had this gone to trial was what to go after Peters for, profits or statutory damages. Profits from Axanar were estimated to be about $1.4 million (which is thought to include the funds raised through crowdfunding and YouTube ad revenue), while damages could have been up to $150,000 per infringed work. Which, as the article points out, could have added up to an incredible amount (possibly over $100 million) given that there is a large pool of material to provide candidates for infringement, from the movies and various TV episodes themselves to elements within the movies and episodes such as Starfleet uniforms.


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So What’s Next For Peters and Axanar?

Thankfully, this is not the end for the Axanar movie. With the case now settled, and Paramount and CBS providing new official guidelines for Star Trek fan films, Axanar will still come out, just in a different, compliant form.

As it’s put in the joint statement from the involved parties:

Axanar and Mr. Peters have agreed to make substantial changes to Axanar to resolve this litigation, and have also assured the copyright holders that any future Star Trek fan films produced by Axanar or Mr. Peters will be in accordance with the ‘Guidelines for Fan Films’ distributed by CBS and Paramount in June 2016.

In contrast to many other possible outcomes, this seems like a mostly reasonable one for all parties involved. And based on the trailer for the movie, and the full short Prelude to Axanar, which you can view below, I’m very excited to see what Peters and Axanar come up with.

Prelude to Axanar Short


ORIGINAL POST 6-24-16 – Studios to Star Trek Fan Films: Make It No

Ever since CBS (who owns the Star Trek TV rights) and Paramount (who owns the Star Trek Film rights) sued Axanar Productions over rights issues related to their crowdfunded Star Trek fan film, the internet has been wondering about the future of fan films. Well, the studios have just announced guidelines for Star Trek fan films, and that future is now defined. Very, very strictly defined.

Before we get to the guidelines, let’s do a quick review of where they came from. For decades, Paramount and CBS have allowed Star Trek fan fiction to exist in a variety of mediums, including film. So when Axanar, who raised money through crowdfunding for the “first fully-professional, independent Star Trek film,” was sued, everyone was a little shocked. Some people were of the opinion that Axanar’s product was too good, and had awoken the dragon, so to speak.

Dropping the Axanar Lawsuit?

Things started to look better for Axanar, however, when Star Trek director and producer JJ Abrams revealed at a recent Star Trek 50th anniversary event that Justin Lin had convinced the studios to drop the lawsuit.

[Lin and I] started talking about it and realized this was not an appropriate way to deal with the fans. The fans should be celebrating this thing. Fans of ‘Star Trek’ are part of this world. So [Lin] went to the studio and pushed them to stop this lawsuit and now, within the next few weeks, it will be announced this is going away, and that fans would be able to continue working on their project.

Except, according to Robert Meyer Burnett (who is set to direct the Axanar Star Trek fan film) in a recent LA Times piece, that’s not the case.

Nothing has changed. It has been going through the court system exactly the same way it had been before [Abrams] made that announcement…. I think, unfortunately, the outcome ultimately is not going to be favorable to us and certainly not for our fans and our donors.

What did happen is that Paramount and CBS released official “Guidelines For Avoiding Objections” regarding Star Trek fan films. Which isn’t a bad thing, right?  Well, that depends. The guidelines are pretty limiting and would not only cut out projects like the one from Axanar but also long-running fan series such as Star Trek Continues and Star Trek New Voyages.

Some of the Star Trek Fan Film Guidelines

  • A Star Trek fan film must be less than 15 minutes for “a single, self-contained story” or no more than 2 segments that total no more than 30 minutes for a longer story, as long as there are “no additional seasons, episodes, parts, sequels or remakes.”
  • No using “Star Trek” in the official title, though you are now required to add this subtitle to all titles: “A Star Trek Fan Production.” They also go so far as to specify that it must be in plain typeface.
  • None of the people involved in the production can receive compensation for their work. In addition, no one involved can have currently be working for, or have previously worked on any official CBS or Paramount Star Trek productions.
  • Any Star Trek fan film must be family friendly. No “profanity, nudity, obscenity, pornography, depictions of drugs, alcohol, tobacco, or any harmful or illegal activity, or any material that is offensive, fraudulent, defamatory, libelous, disparaging, sexually explicit, threatening, hateful, or any other inappropriate content.

Oh, and CBS and Paramount also reserve the right to change, revoke, or do, well, anything with these guidelines “at any time in their own discretion.

Axanar Release Trailer for Star Trek Fan Film

So, where does that leave Star Trek fans and their fan films?  In a very tightly defined space, that can change at any moment. Not exactly a great place to be. However, Axanar is soldiering on despite the lawsuit and has just released the first trailer for their fan film.

Interestingly, they appear to have complied with some of the new rules, including adopting the required disclaimer at the end, though they use the subtitle “a Star Trek fan film” versus using “a Star Trek fan production.”

So what do you think? Are the studios going too far? Also, how cool does the Axanar fan film look?

Featured Image: Axanar Productions

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3 Responses

  1. Victor Hugo Carballo

    Fair enough, fans should start their own franchises instead and become the next Arthur Clarkes and Isaac Asimovs. Go and become the next Irwin Allen and Glen A. Larson.

    “Star Trek” itself is a fan-film of “Forbidden Planet”, for Pete´s sake!

    1. Anders Clark

      You know this kind of brings up an interesting question. If the fans did break off and do their own thing, would that affect the Star Trek bottom line? Will cracking down on this sort of thing maybe cause a loss of money?

  2. Phil

    They should Grandfather clause Axanar in as the last fanfilm to be made to disregard those rules. Im sure a great deal of the money raised by kickstarter went into the production. If not they should definitely do an original production. With the removal of ALL Trek fan films and productions I personally hope Beyond and All Access Trek Series suffer by way of fan retaliation.

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