Star Trek v. Axanar: Copyright Infringement or Permissible Fan Work?

Star Trek vs Axanar: CBS and Paramount sue Axanar Productions
Star Trek vs Axanar: CBS and Paramount sue Axanar Productions

If you are a Star Trek fan, know a Star Trek fan, or are merely vaguely aware that you need to be very careful about whether you call Star Trek fans “trekkies” or “trekkers,” you are probably aware of the Axanar project and the litigation surrounding it.

For those who spend slightly less of their time contemplating the wonders that Gene Roddenberry created than I do, here is the nickel summary: In 1966, the television show Star Trek first aired. It was cancelled after three seasons but went on to gain popularity in syndication. From these humble beginnings, the property has ultimately expanded into multiple spinoff television series, movies, books, websites, merchandising, and pretty well any kind of copyrightable work you can think of. In terms of the depth and breadth of the copyrighted properties and the fictional geography, it can only properly be called a “universe.” Today, there are two companies that own the copyright rights to Star Trek, CBS and Paramount. CBS owns the television rights and Paramount owns the movie rights, though according to Axanar Productions’ attorneys, this may not be the full picture due to the ways in which the copyright ownership has changed hands over time. CBS and Paramount have, according to numerous news articles, allowed fans to make short films, written fictional works, elaborate and accurate costumes, and other tributes, all without pursuing legal action against the fans. Corroborating this claim is the fact that Paramount lists Star Trek fan sites on its official website for the Star Trek movies. CBS and Paramount could have taken legal action against these fan uses at any time because these fan works are derivative works, meaning copyrightable works that are based on another copyrighted work. Only the owner of a copyright has the right to create or authorize creation of derivative works of the original copyrighted material; if anyone else creates a derivative work, that constitutes copyright infringement.

But Axanar, unlike many fan films before it, has drawn legal action from CBS and Paramount. Theories on why Axanar is different range from timing (CBS has just announced another new Star Trek television show to begin airing in 2017, and Paramount has the next reboot movie coming out in summer 2016) to money (the crowdfunded Axanar raised an unprecedented $1 million for production online) to quality (Axanar is using professionals to make the film, while most prior fan films did not) to sour grapes (the studios fear that Axanar will be more popular than the reboot movies, which many fans felt failed to capture the spirit of Star Trek). The Axanar Productions legal team has taken the strategy of insisting that the plaintiff explain in great detail exactly which copyrights have been violated and exactly which plaintiff owns which copyrights. They are asking, essentially, that CBS and Paramount give the exact coordinates of the conflict within the Star Trek universe. The disconnect is that CBS and Paramount are contending that Axanar Productions is in essence violating (almost) the entire universe all at once. And such insistence on a detailed list of the exact elements that have been violated (which the amended complaint does provide) gives the appearance of being the refuge of an infringer that knows it has been caught and has no solid grounds for defense.

One concept I have seen repeatedly throughout news articles and fan website discussions is that CBS and Paramount have always been fine with fan works as long as they didn’t make any money–and that a lack of profits is a defense to infringement. The Axanar creators themselves have repeated this idea and are fighting hard in the court of public opinion to turn the fan community to their side. Both Prelude to Axanar, a 20-minute trailer to the new movie, and Axanar itself will be released to the public for free (assuming the movie ever does get released). This does not, however, mean that the movie is not a for-profit enterprise in any sense that would matter for a legal defense of Axanar. The professional production staff, producers, and others are certainly being paid, regardless of whether the money comes from donations to a Kickstarter campaign or from purchase of tickets, electronic files, or DVDs. This is also not a real legal test for whether a work is infringing. It is part of the legal test for the fair use defense to infringement, but it is only part of the test. Axanar likely wouldn’t make it past the first question in a fair use analysis, specifically whether the purpose of the use is “criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research.” Even if it did, there is a serious question about whether it would harm the market for the copyrighted works, another of the elements of the fair use test. The fact that fans have posited that Axanar better captures the spirit of the original Star Trek than the reboot movies certainly adds weight to CBS and Paramount’s position on that question.

Another defense of Axanar Productions that I have seen often is that CBS and Paramount have never sued before, so they should be barred from suing now. Legally speaking, this would be a defense for Axanar Productions in a trademark case, but it is not a defense in a copyright case like the one CBS and Paramount have filed. Trademark owners must police their trademarks to ensure that the marks do not become so diluted that they no longer serve as source identifiers; copyright owners have no such obligation and are perfectly free to pick and choose which infringers to take action against. This means that the fan theory that the money is the motivation may be at least a partial explanation: why bother pursuing an infringer who has no money? Hiring big-name litigation lawyers is quite expensive, and if you win an infringement case, the other side must pay your attorneys’ fees. If the other side has no money, you’re out your attorneys’ fees.

The other major defense of Axanar Productions I have seen is that CBS and Paramount have slapped fans in the face by bringing this lawsuit. The fan community is the lifeblood of Star Trek, the thinking goes, and for CBS and Paramount to bring a suit without so much as sending a cease and desist letter will only alienate fans. While I do understand this sentiment, and I enjoyed Prelude to Axanar as much as the next fan, I also appreciate that CBS and Paramount are businesses. They have a bottom line to consider, and when fans are saying things like “this captures the spirit of Star Trek better than the reboot movies!” that shows that Axanar is realistically a threat to their bottom line. Should they have explored a license agreement first? Maybe. But they also don’t want to encourage the “it’s better to beg forgiveness than to ask permission” approach from fan works. In addition, Axanar Productions is able to do things that older fan works have not: technology has been changing in ways that make fan works a realistic threat to the market for canon/copyright-owner-created works. CBS and Paramount may be navigating the changing landscape badly, but they are hardly alone in needing to find ways to deal with the changes.

What do you think? Are there other alternatives CBS and Paramount should have explored? Can fan films coexist with canon works without hurting the market for canon works? Will you stop watching new Star Trek because of the lawsuit?