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?

Pinterest for Employers

Pinterest for Business

I was recently interviewed for the Society for Human Resource Management article “Pinterest Might Facilitate Copyright Infringement.” Below for your viewing pleasure is the entire text of the email-based interview with Workplace Law Content Manager Allen Smith.

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What special copyright issues arise in using Pinterest and how should employees be trained to comply with copyright laws when they are pinning content on Pinterest in a work-related capacity?

Pinterest raises more or less the same copyright issues as any other website, but it has gotten more media attention than others. In general, no one should ever place any content on the web that he or she does not own or have a license (permission) to place on the web. Employees should be aware of what intellectual property their employer owns, any of which may be posted on the employer’s behalf (in compliance with any other laws and workplace policies, of course), and what intellectual property may be subject to licenses which limit the employer’s (and by extension the employee’s) right to post. Otherwise, content located on the web is generally off-limits; making material public does not abrogate any copyright rights. Exceptions include content that is in the public domain (there are several online databases of public domain works—in general, a work published prior to 1923 will be in the public domain); content that is explicitly licensed for pinning; content that falls under fair use exceptions to copyright; and content that is subject to a Creative Commons license (though be careful with that one, as work-related uses may not qualify for some Creative Commons licenses).

Employees should be trained to look for key phrases in website Terms of Use indicating that it is safe to use content on Pinterest (a handy shortcut: if a site owner who clearly owns or licenses the content has placed a “Pin It!” button on the site, pinning should be fine; Etsy is a good example). In addition, a Pinterest account holder that pins its own content has granted a license to Pinterest, so that the content can be re-pinned by other users. The tricky part can be determining whether content was pinned by the rights owner since Pinterest does not have a corollary to the Twitter Verified Account badge.

Could you provide examples of how employees might use Pinterest for work purposes?

I have seen some companies doing wonderful things with Pinterest, primarily retailers. Random House Books has an account and pins not only its own books (brilliant given that “Books Worth Reading” is one of the default pinboards), but also interesting book- and reading-related images. Home Depot has become very involved in the home decor suggestions boards and re-pins content in addition to posting its own proprietary photos, which of course gets people thinking about ways they could improve their homes using Home Depot products. Service professionals can use Pinterest as well; one of my favorite accounts belongs to a style consultant, Sasha Westin, who uses Pinterest to gather suggested wardrobes for people, such as “Men’s Relaxed Professional,” complete with links for purchasing each item.

If employees are using their personal Pinterest accounts to promote their employer, they should be aware of FTC blogger regulations, which require disclosing that relationship.

How are the copyright issues that arise when using Pinterest similar to copyright challenges employees face with other forms of social media that’s used in their work?

As noted, they are really very much the same. No one should post content on any site that he or she does not own or have a license to use. The difference between posting a link to an article on Facebook and posting it on Pinterest, though, is that on Facebook a thumbnail of any photo accompanying the article appears (which has been pretty well, but not definitively, established as fair use), but on Pinterest the full image appears and is uploaded to the Pinterest servers. Pinterest also has a more visual focus, which encourages people to post infringing material such as the work of photographers or painters.

Is pinning content owned by others any different from a legal standpoint from retweeting content on Twitter, and if so, how?

Yes. When someone posts something to Twitter, one of two things is happening: either it is original content, which that person has granted a license to Twitter to use (and that use includes retweeting by other users), or it is not original content. Content that is not original generally must be paraphrased or be a brief introduction to linked content. Linking does not infringe on copyright, and Twitter’s 140-character limit is short enough that it would be difficult to infringe any Twitter-external content. Pinterest has no such limitations.

Are many employees oblivious to the copyright concerns that may exist in their work-related use of Pinterest and, if so, what kind of training might employers provide?

I can’t speak to employees in particular, but much of the general population has developed an ethic about sharing that is not sensitive to the rights of copyright holders. This ethic extends to personal and professional use of social media, including Pinterest. Employers should ensure that their employees are aware that when it comes to copyright, creation, not possession, is 9/10ths of the law. Employees using Pinterest in a work-related capacity should always consider the source, whether the source owns the copyrighted material, and whether the source has given the employer a right to use the copyrighted material. For employers who may be cost-sensitive, the Copyright Office maintains a series of easy-to-understand Circulars, which explain much of what an average person needs to know about copyright. Circular 1 contains the fundamentals. The Copyright Office, however, does not give information about what to look for in a license.

There are also social media certifications becoming available for employees whose routine duties involve social media; the one I am familiar with, from the National Institute for Social Media, should be coming out this fall and will be accredited. (Disclosure: I am chair of the Industry Advisory Committee for NISM, so I wrote the portions of the exam dealing with legal questions. I do not benefit financially from my relationship with NISM.)

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Pinterest Copyright Questions and Concerns

Pinterest for Business

The Social Networking Nanny, Lanae, and I co-wrote a blog post over at Lanae’s blog:
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“The last few months have been a whirlwind here at Pinterest. It’s hard to explain how it feels to go from a small group of people working on a virtually unknown website, to a slightly bigger team of people working on a service that millions of people use every day.” (Pinterest spokesperson to CBS’s WCCO)

Isn’t that statement the truth! In a busy, busy world who doesn’t love a fast and easy way to share ideas, recipes, fashion and more…hello Pinterest! It sparked our interest, 12 million of us have flocked to it, and for many of us it became an immediate addiction. And then the “fine print” was made bold to us. … Nobody likes reading the fine print, but interpreting this was scary. Could we possibly be violating people’s Copyrights? … Read more

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Legal Issues Around Pinterest

Pinterest for Business

Arik Hanson of ACH Communications interviewed me about Pinterest:

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A few weeks ago, I was at an event that focused on, you guessed it, Pinterest. Great, I thought. We’ll hopefully hear about some of legal issues swirling around Pinterest for brands right now. It was just that week before that legal concerns had broke–and one attorney/photog had taken down her Pinterest board as a result. But, unfortunately, we didn’t get to discuss those legal concerns at this event–even though there was an attorney at the event who just so happened to specialize in social media.

So, I thought I’d take this chance to approach said attorney to answer some of the questions I have about Pinterest and brand usage (as I’m sure many others do at this point) and open up the discussion a bit…. Read more

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What Do Pinterest’s Updated Terms of Service Mean for Business Users?

Pinterest for Business

By now you are probably aware that Pinterest has updated its Terms of Service and Privacy Policy as of March 23, 2012. The changes will be effective April 6, 2012. The site has been sending emails to users informing them of the update and has posted the email regarding the changes to its blog as well.

Before diving into the changes, I want to note that Pinterest has joined what is apparently becoming a trend in the approach to updating the Terms. It has, like Facebook and Google before it, made sure its users have notice of the changes (via email and/or notifications in several places within the site) and an opportunity to decide whether or not they should continue using the site in light of the changes. For over a decade, it has been standard practice for sites reserve the right to make changes without notice, or with only a very small notice at the bottom of the page near the link to the Terms, and bind users to the updated terms merely by visiting the site, whether or not they have viewed the updated terms. As more and more sites make it their standard practice to notify users and give them time to decide whether to accept an updated policy, the courts may change their approach to this topic. It is worth keeping an eye on and considering in choosing how to notify users of policy updates.

Now, moving on to the meat of the changes.

One of the major changes for business users is that it is now one hundred percent clear that Pinterest makes its users responsible for any violation of copyright caused by their re-pins. The Terms specifically state that “It is important that you understand that you are in the best position to know if the materials you post are legally allowed. We therefore ask that you please be careful when deciding whether to make User Content available on our Service, including whether you can pin or re-pin User Content on your boards” (emphasis added). The disclaimer section also provides that “you agree that we are only acting as a passive conduit for your AND OTHER USERS’ online distribution and publication of your AND THEIR User Content.” In other words, a user cannot simply rely on an assumption that other users have legitimately pinned any content to Pinterest; they need to verify that content is legitimately on the site before re-pinning. (For tips on how to get your business’s content onto Pinterest and assure users that you want them pinning and re-pinning your content, check out my post “Do You Like Free Advertising? Or, How to Make Pinterest Work for Your Business.”)

Pinterest is also making a nod to copyright fair use in its modified Terms; users are now granted a license “to use the Service, including accessing and viewing Pinterest Content, for your personal, noncommercial use to allow you to express yourself, discuss public issues, report on issues of public concern, engage in parody and as expressly permitted by the features of the Service.” Pinterest has likely added this to its Terms to bolster its claims that it is not encouraging its users to violate copyright law; it is only providing a forum for them to make fair use of others’ images. Pinterest does not want to be the next Napster. Business will want to bear in mind how fair use is different from other uses when pinning or re-pinning content.

Unfortunately, the updated Terms have some problems. For example, the license granted by the new Terms is limited to “personal, non-commercial use” in Section 2(b); but in Section 4(b), business users are granted the right to create an account so long as the individual creating the account has the authority to create it and bind the business to the Terms of Service. It is not clear whether pinning a business’s own content along with some commentary or an invitation to interact, one of the more logical ways for businesses to use the site, could be considered “commercial.” The original Terms of Service had similar terms about non-commercial use, though, and web searches did not turn up any Pinterest actions against business users.

Pinterest has also added a binding arbitration clause at Section 11, along with a limitation on class-action law suits. Whether a company is comfortable submitting to binding arbitration by using the site is largely a business decision but should definitely be brought to the attention of the company’s lawyer.

Also potentially problematic from the standpoint of the business user is that the Terms, including all rights and licenses assigned by them, cannot be transferred by users. One of those rights is the right to have and use an account. At least for the moment, there is only one account type, and an account opened by any individual on behalf of a company appears to be owned jointly by the company and the individual so far as Pinterest’s Terms are concerned. Businesses will want to make sure that their employment policies or agreements are clear on the subject of who owns social media accounts (although this is a best practice in general).

What do you think? Will your business begin or continue using Pinterest in light of these changes?