A couple of months ago, Joanna took a look at the lawsuit against Star Trek: Axanar, a Star Trek “fan film” that had raised over a million dollars via a Kickstarter project, founded its own studio, and planned to make a movie set in the backstory of the TV series setting. CBS and Paramount, the owners of Star Trek, were supposedly initially supportive, but subsequently filed a copyright lawsuit.
The latest news on the story comes by way of the Hollywood Reporter, which looks at the defense Axanar’s would-be producers are putting up. Effectively, they’re taking aim directly at the complicated ownership and copyright history of the Star Trek franchise, demanding that CBS and Paramount’s lawyers tell them exactly which copyrights they’re accused of violating, and that they more adequately explain which plaintiff owns which copyrights in Star Trek.
Axanar’s producers argue that CBS and Paramount’s claims are too vague to meet pleading standards and that the case should be dismissed. They also argue that the suit is premature because they haven’t even finalized their movie script yet.
I’m a little puzzled why CBS and Paramount are going into the weeds of copyright violation when it seems like they would have a much stronger case for shutting the production down on grounds of unauthorized uses of the Star Trek trademark, but I would imagine they know their own business best.
The thing that bothers me about this suit is not so much questions of quality—Joanna’s suggestion that you could get in trouble if your fanfic was “too good”—as it is methodology. This is a group that solicited over a million dollars from investors, founded its own studio, hired professional industry veterans, and even says on its own website that it plans to make something “new and original and professionally made” (emphasis mine). That’s not a “fan film,” that’s the antithesis of “fan film.” This is a professional production company that wants to make an unauthorized movie with someone else’s IP, while hiding behind the oh-so-thin fig leaf that, because they’re Star Trek fans, it’s just a fan film and everything should be hunky-dory.
And the thing that really bothers me is the implications that a case like this could have for real fan films, or even fan fiction. In fannish circles, practically everyone remembers the lawsuit Marion Zimmer Bradley faced from a fan who had submitted a story for publication in one of her anthologies. That case subsequently had a major chilling effect on fanfic, as writers became concerned that exposure to fans’ ideas could leave them open to copyright lawsuits for ripping them off. If it’s not slapped down hard and fast, the Axanar case has the potential to be even worse.
If fan films suddenly become an avenue to let professionals make unauthorized pastiche films willy-nilly, the whole idea of allowing fan films at all will get thrown into doubt. Franchises that once turned a mostly-blind eye toward fans who played with their IP could suddenly find it more costly than it’s worth to continue to be so permissive. Even if the Axanar lawsuit eventually fizzles after eating up much time and expense, it’ll show franchise owners that fan films could lead to costly litigation, and best to just nip that in the bud before it can become a problem. It’s possible this might even extend to any unauthorized use of the IP, and lead to more efforts to shut down fanfic in general.
It’s not exactly a secret that a number of Star Trek fans have been unhappy with the direction the franchise has taken with the Abrams reboot movies. And perhaps the Axanar people could make the sort of movie those unhappy fans have been wanting. But the thing is, with any franchise that’s lasted as long through as many different interpretations as Star Trek, some number of fans are going to be unhappy with any new thing in it. That doesn’t give them the right to go out and make their own version, using someone else’s copyrighted and trademarked material. Some IP owners, including CBS and Paramount, have been supportive of fans who wanted to make something new on their own, but that support shouldn’t be construed to open the door to professionals coming in to do the same thing with huge production budgets.
It’s a pity that the dawn of the new perpetual copyright coincides with the dawn of modern audiovisual media. Since those media are where the big money gathers, interests who own such franchises will spend their last penny to hold onto them for as long as they possibly can, which is a big barrier to people getting to create new things out of them. Under the copyright laws that existed at the time Star Trek was first created, it would have long since been in the public domain by now. But it isn’t, and if Disney keeps getting to rewrite the copyright laws whenever Mickey Mouse teeters on the verge of entering the public domain, it never will be. But that doesn’t give people the right to ignore the laws if they don’t like them. (That way lies sovereign citizenhood and Cliven Bundy.)
Returning to the Axanar lawsuit filing, to me it reads like a delaying tactic—an attempt to prolong the litigation and make it so unattractive to CBS and Paramount to continue that they agree to come to some kind of settlement that stops the legal expenses and permits them to go ahead and make their film. Will the judge be inclined to play along? If so, will CBS and Paramount be willing to go that far?
Whatever happens, I hope it resolves quickly, and without casting a further pall over fan creative projects. If that means CBS and Paramount settling so the Axanar people can make their film, fine. If it means the judge throwing the case out, also fine. But a protracted, expensive litigation could have dire consequences for fan films, fanfic, and other such projects, and I really hope we don’t end up with that.
(Found via The Passive Voice.)