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The story of the Star Trek fan film that is challenging copyright laws

The story of the Star Trek fan...
Axanar concept art
Axanar concept art
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Star Trek: Beyond director Justin Lin's tweet of support to the Axanar filmmakers
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Star Trek: Beyond director Justin Lin's tweet of support to the Axanar filmmakers
Concept art of a communicator in Axanar
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Concept art of a communicator in Axanar
Axanar concept art
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Axanar concept art
Some of the cast of Prelude to Axanar, L to R: Alec Peters, Kate Vernon, Richard Hatch
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Some of the cast of Prelude to Axanar, L to R: Alec Peters, Kate Vernon, Richard Hatch
Axanar concept art
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Axanar concept art

Over a series of articles last year we examined several issues surrounding the complicated notion of copyright and originality in the 21st century. A recent court case over a Star Trek fan film has again raised this thorny issue, asking who really owns the cultural objects we consume?

The following story is a cautionary tale of a fan film project that became too successful for its own good.

In the middle of 2014 a Star Trek fan film appeared online entitled Prelude to Axanar. This short film, creatively filmed like a History Channel mock-documentary, covered an early untold Star Trek story only briefly referenced in the original series. The expansive short cost over $100,000 generated through a successful crowdfunding campaign. Prelude to Axanar was enormously successful among the fan community, produced at a time when the official new Star Trek films weren't fulfilling all the needs of hardcore Trekkies.

Prelude to Axanar

Over the following year the producers of Prelude developed a feature-length follow up and generated over 1 million dollars in production funds across two crowdfunding campaigns.

This was to be the largest budgeted piece of unauthorized fan fiction ever made.

Over the years major Hollywood studios have had a love/hate relationship with fan made productions. Historically these studios have tended to turn a blind eye to many of these projects despite their potentially copyright infringing natures. There has long been an unspoken understanding that allowed fan made projects to flourish, after all, the enthusiasm of fan communities are a significant part of the value of those properties. Stifling fan activity is never a good thing.

Axanar concept art
Axanar concept art

Star Trek in particular has a long history of fan made projects, all slowly building in scale and scope. In 2006 a fan film entitled Star Trek: Of Gods and Men was produced from a donated budget of $150,000 and then in 2014, Star Trek: Renegades crowdfunded $375,000 for its production. As the fan films were getting bigger and bigger it was easy to see the studios becoming more and more nervous. The Axanar feature film was set to be larger than any previously produced fan film, yet by mid-2015, months after two very high profile and successful crowdfunding campaigns, there was no reported legal issues.

Pre-production was underway and Axanar executive producer Alec Peters wrote in August of 2015 of his confidence that project would be safe. He reiterated the long history of allowed, yet unauthorized, fan films and also discussed his unofficial meetings with CBS at a Star Trek convention.

On the morning of December 30th, 2015, as the film was about to move into production, the filmmakers received a rude shock.

The lawsuit was in.

Some of the cast of Prelude to Axanar, L to R: Alec Peters, Kate Vernon, Richard Hatch
Some of the cast of Prelude to Axanar, L to R: Alec Peters, Kate Vernon, Richard Hatch

CBS and Paramount were suing the production for copyright infringement. The scale of this fan film had seemingly crossed a line. Peters posted a frustrated official statement on the film's website expressing irritation that this lawsuit had come so late into their process. It had been a year since the initial campaigns to raise the production money. Why had they waited so long? Why hadn't they just contacted him to discuss the matters without jumping into a lawsuit?

As well as an immediate halt to production, the lawsuit was demanding damages for what was being described as "direct, contributory and vicarious copyright infringement." This was serious business and the copyright holders were not playing around but the fan community rallied and support was seemingly on the side of the fan filmmakers.

Star Trek: Beyond director Justin Lin's tweet of support to the Axanar filmmakers
Star Trek: Beyond director Justin Lin's tweet of support to the Axanar filmmakers

Justin Lin, the director of the latest Star Trek film stepped up to support the filmmakers, tweeting his frustration with the lawsuit. Not long after, powerhouse Hollywood writer/director/producer JJ Abrams backed Lin up, ironically while they were on the official press tour for Star Trek: Beyond.

At the time he claimed that the lawsuit would "go away" after Lin approached the studio:


"We 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 he 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."

Unsurprisingly, the suit did not go away and nothing was dropped.

Concept art of a communicator in Axanar
Concept art of a communicator in Axanar

This was to set the precedent where a big copyright holder was putting its foot down on how its properties were being repurposed by fans. While the prospective fan film was careful to avoid using a number of pre-established Star Trek characters, it was clear the film was set in a Star Trek world that utilized Vulcans, Klingons and many other details from that universe. The case would be the first to try to clearly delineate how far current copyright protections actually cover fictional universes. In a world of abstract legal definitions, this was a rare case that was to draw a definitive line over what was and wasn't fair use.

In early January of 2017 a judge ruled that not only was the Axanar feature unable to fulfill the criteria for a fair use defense, but the case was to move to a civil trial where a jury would have to decide whether the fan film was "substantially similar" enough to constitute copyright infringement.

Despite the Axanar filmmakers non-profit stance (they were to distribute the film for free), the judge found that the fan film could in fact interrupt the profit streams of original content from the copyright holder, as fans could choose that free content over the paid features.

It's rare to see a copyright case taken to this level, but it's fair to say the precedent set by the results of this suit will potentially shake up the future of all fan made fiction. While it is certainly fair for copyright holders to be protective of their properties, one has to ask what happens when the consumer loses the ability to interact with the cultural objects they are delivered?

Do we just passively receive pop culture, or in these dynamic days of digital creation, are we allowed to interact, remix and repurpose in creative ways? For good or bad, it seems a legal line in the sand is about to be clearly drawn.

22 comments
ChairmanLMAO
Reward them with a penance royalty. For every dollar made by the fans - the prosecutor and their ill ilk must pay the defender .2% forever. And I'm not even a fan.
aksdad
The copyright tyrants of Hollywood strike again! These are the same multimillionaires who force their customers to read at the beginning of every DVD or Blu Ray they purchase their threat of 5 years in prison or $250,000 fines if they make copies of the movie. If we were still following the very sensible original Copyright Act of 1790, Star Trek would have passed into the public domain upon the death of the creator, Gene Rodenberry, in 1991. A little over 2 years after the Constitution granted Congress power in Section 1 Article 8 "to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries" they passed the first copyright laws. They decided that the copyright should benefit the creator for 14 years with the option to renew one more time if he was still alive; reasonably recognizing that a dead person could no longer benefit from a copyright. Fast forward through several revisions to the Mickey Mouse Protection Act of 1998 which extended copyrights to 70 years AFTER the death of the author, or 95 years for corporate-owned copyrights, which means Star Trek won't be public until 2059. Interestingly, this incredibly (or ridiculously) generous period is not granted to drug manufacturers. They can only hold a patent on a drug for 20 years from the time the patent was filed. This more closely follows the intent of the Copyright Clause, balancing the public health need for inexpensive drugs (generics) while allowing the inventor a reasonable amount of time to (hopefully) recoup the cost of research and development and to make a profit. Maybe Congress will grow cojones someday to stand up to the entertainment tyrants and restore copyright periods back to a reasonable length of time, like 14 or 28 years. I'm not holding my breath.
VirtualGathis
When this is combined with the successful crushing of content filtering by Hollywood it is becoming increasingly clear they don't want fans. That's fine I'm perfectly happy to speak with my wallet. I am a fan of the star trek universe, but not a rabid one. I haven't seen the new ones, now I won't. With the crushing of filtering I'll also not be buying, renting, streaming, or otherwise consuming any content with unacceptable content regardless of how awesome or popular it might be.
ljaques
No wonder more and more movies are NOT made in Hollywood. This version of Star Trek is FIFTY YEARS OLD. 100 year copyrights are ridiculous. Fug CBS. Fug the mandatory minutes on every movie DVD. Boycott 'em. They don't need our dollars, and they don't -deserve- our dollars. Ditto the NFL players.
Nicolas Zart
It's sadly not surprising and it explains why so many of us Star Trek fans don't go to see the Hollywood new ST movies. They have nothing to do with Star Trek. They are disappointing. They are just action movies. That's not Star Trek. Star Trek is a philosophical program. It pushes us to think beyond our day-to-day shuffle. When I walk away from a Star Trek show, I do with thought-provoking questions. I never do with bang-bang, blow-them-up entertainment movies. Hollywood can sue all they want. It won't change much. If the word Star Trek can't be used, then let's open source an ST fork. I'm more than happy to contribute to that endeavor, where no one has yet gone :) Seriously.
Firehawk70
I think CBS/Paramount should lobby Congress to push out the copyright for Star Trek until the year of First Contact.
bill
Good comments. It is feasible to boycott Hollywood. There’s lots of free entertainment elsewhere, much of it far better than many $100 million movies.
RykSpoor
The issue really derives from the slow but apparently inexorable creep of copyright length. When the U.S. Constitution first established American copyright law, the term of copyright was limited to 28 years (14+14 renew). This, it so happens, is about one generation, which means that people who grew up inspired by some story in any medium would, as adults, then be free to BUILD upon what they had grown up with. This was the basic reason FOR copyright -- to encourage the *ongoing* creation of works of art, literature, etc., which would then pass -- in a REASONABLE time -- to the Public Domain, there to be used and built upon by the next generation, and so on. This also meant that there was a good chance that the references and thoughts inspired by the original would still have some relevance after it entered the Public Domain. Nowadays, however, copyright extends for (roughly) a century (95 years for Work-For-Hire, Life-Plus-75 for individuals' creations. That's over three generations. No wonder the current generation has less and less respect for the apparently-eternal period of copyright. By the original durations, the original Star Trek would be in the Public Domain in its entirety (and would have been for about twenty years). The original Star Wars would be, as well, as would uncountable other works, and people would be free to build upon these modern legends. Effectively-eternal copyright is a stifling and ultimately damaging legal limit.
over_there
it seems reasonable , they are happy for people to use there work for fun and non profit which is generous but put there foot down when it is profitable. despite them saying its a not for profit film distributed for free where do you think all the money raised goes ? it ends up in someones pocket
Michael Flower
So "Pissing-Off" those that make the Star Trek Franchise Profitable, "Makes More Sense" then "Placating to the Star Trek Fan Based Masses" (aka "Death Wish")...