Home » Copyright/Intellectual Property, Legal Stuff » Crowdfunded ‘Star Trek’ Movie Draws Lawsuit from Paramount, CBS

Crowdfunded ‘Star Trek’ Movie Draws Lawsuit from Paramount, CBS

4 January 2016

From The Hollywood Reporter:

For decades, Paramount and CBS have tolerated and even encouraged fans of theStar Trek franchise to use their imagination at will, but on Tuesday the entertainment companies went to their battle stations and launched a legal missile at a production company touting the first independent Star Trek film.

Axanar, the subject of a lawsuit filed on Friday in California federal court, is no ordinary Star Trek film. The forthcoming feature film (preceded by a short film) is the source of more than $1 million in crowdfunding on Kickstarter and Indiegogo. The producers, led by Alec Peters, aim to make a studio-quality film. As the pitch to investors put it, “While some may call it a ‘fan film’ as we are not licensed by CBS, Axanar has professionals working in front and behind the camera, with a fully-professional crew — many of whom have worked on Star Trek itself — who ensure Axanar will be the quality of Star Trek that all fans want to see.”

Paramount and CBS see a violation of their intellectual property.

“The Axanar Works infringe Plaintiffs’ works by using innumerable copyrighted elements of Star Trek, including its settings, characters, species, and themes,” states the complaint.

Axanar has become one of the biggest film projects in Kickstarter history and has been nearing warp speed with the reported help of Star Trek actor George Takei. The film mines subject area referenced in the late 1960s Gene Roddenberry television series and appears to be a prequel.

. . . .

By August, Peters was giving interviews expressing confidence that the project would survive any legal heat. He spoke to The Wrap that month and reported having a meeting with CBS. He says he was told the film couldn’t make money — and evidently, he took that to be a good sign that his film would be tolerated as long as it wasn’t a commercial endeavor. “CBS has a long history of accepting fan films,” Peters told the entertainment site. “I think Axanar has become so popular that CBS realizes that we’re just making their brand that much better.”

Not so fast.

Paramount and CBS, represented by attorneys at Loeb & Loeb, are now demanding an injunction as well as damages for direct, contributory and vicarious copyright infringement. Although the plaintiffs have allowed ample cosplaying over the years and even permitted other derivatives like amateur Star Trek shows to circulate, the lawsuit illustrates that there is a place where no man has gone before, where the entertainment studios are not willing to let be occupied: crowdfunded, professional-quality films that use copyrighted “elements” like Vulcans and Klingons, Federation starships, phasers and stuff like the “look and feel of the planet, the characters’ costumes, their pointy ears and their distinctive hairstyle

Link to the rest at The Hollywood Reporter and thanks to Antares for the tip.

Copyright/Intellectual Property, Legal Stuff

20 Comments to “Crowdfunded ‘Star Trek’ Movie Draws Lawsuit from Paramount, CBS”

  1. I wondered when it would happen. No more wondering. Shame, House Hunney’s been looking forward to Axanar.

    • Not just your House Hunney. I was looking forward to it, too. As Stephen said below, it’s sad when the fan produced works are SO much better (especially in writing) than the official Paramount versions.

      • I only saw parts of the 20 minute demo reel, but i agree. I would rather see Axanar than any of the last three official Star trek movies.

  2. It’s embarrassing when fan produced works are better than the official ones. I’ve really enjoyed the Star Trek New Voyages fan shows. I think they’ve kept the spirit of Trek alive.

  3. I didn’t know these cinema fan creations existed until the other day, when I saw this “trailer” of Star Wars vs. Star Trek movie, which imagines Vader and the emperor as the villains in the last two Trek movies. Best line: “Get out of the chair.” You’ll know why. Incidentally, I am impressed by the sheer quality of video game images, as you wouldn’t know some of those scenes came from games if you never played them.

    As for Peters, this incident shows why you need to get it all on the table when it comes to business. No, “Well I thought, I assumed,” but rather “I outlined a specific scenario and they agreed to it.”

    I try to avoid most fan creations of this type — it makes me wistful when I see ones that are better than what actually gets to the screen. I always liked to think that the fans were using them as proof-of-talent for job applications or fundraising drives. Bioware asks applicants to make games using their mod tools; I wondered if film studios did the same thing.

    • Alec did sit down with CBS and he did talk to them and NO, CBS never said he could not move forward with Axanar.

      http://www.axanarproductions.com/axanar-and-cbs/

      Right now there is a push to show CBS there is a way to legally allow fan productions which would give fans a set of rules to follow, legal protection again litigation, and a professional distribution system. Lucasfilms already does this for Star Wars fan productions. All we want is for CBS and Paramount to adopt something similar.

      http://www.axanarproductions.com/axanar-and-cbs/

      • He spoke to The Wrap that month and reported having a meeting with CBS. He says he was told the film couldn’t make money — and evidently, he took that to be a good sign that his film would be tolerated as long as it wasn’t a commercial endeavor.

        SNIP

        … there is a place where no man has gone before, where the entertainment studios are not willing to let be occupied: crowdfunded, professional-quality films that use copyrighted “elements” …

        Emphasis mine. He thought crowdfunding the movie would be OK, because he wasn’t selling the post-production product. CBS disagreed. He would have known they disagreed if he had told them from the get-go that he was going to crowd-fund the movie, which based on the excerpt above he did not do. He just assumed.

        Had he told them what he planned, he could have negotiated a threshold of crowdfunding — is less than $50,000 okay? What happens if I get $1 million? I suspect he would have been on better ground with the former number. Or, he might have re-thought the project if CBS refused to allow any crowdfunding at all.

        That’s what I mean. There shouldn’t have been any ambiguity about what was meant and what’s allowed and under what circumstances. He should have gotten those details nailed down: Star Trek is someone else’s sandbox, and rule number 1 is that you don’t play in someone else’s sandbox without establishing the ground rules.

  4. I’m pretty astonished that anyone would imagine they could make such a film. And the more professional they claim that it is, the more likely the copyright owners are to speak up.

    Then again, I used to practice IP law, so I come to it from that POV. It’s all fun and games as long as it’s the little people playing around in your sandbox and you raking in the bucks from their continued enthusiasm, but once they start to look like competition, it’s time to set your phasers way past stun.

    • I’m not an attorney and that was still my first thought. How did they think no one would kick sand?

      Dan

      • i wonder if company who had bucks big enough to make a seeming pro film, tried to ally with Para or CBS and negots. failed. I’d have to see income stats for company to be able to even begin to know where to try to observe /assess ‘damage.’ Incursion, as Patrice noted, may be easily proven. And, there are likely other issues.

        Im meh on star trek by whomever, but seems those who put the money into developing the archetypal ways and means, and distrib ongoing– hold lion’s share re creative control, character builds and recognition.

    • @Patrice Fitzgerald, During my law school days, I took every course offered in IP. I wanted to go into patent law but ended up in contract and bankruptcy law.

      A lawyer’s job is to minimize risk for his client. I appreciate the advice legal counsel is giving to CBS and Paramount, but I think this is a situation where they will win the battle and lose the war. Fanfic films feed the Star Trek frenzy (and, no, I did not consciously strive for suicidal alliteration in that sentence). Fanfic does not dilute the brand; it strengthens it.

      Loyal fans are the best advertising you can get, and money cannot buy them.

      BTW were I counsel to Alec Peters, I would advise him to have Axanar Productions, Inc., file for bankruptcy protection now and fight this battle with bankruptcy lawyers in bankruptcy court. All bankruptcy courts are rocket dockets. My bet is that the IP lawyers cannot keep pace. In bankruptcy court, CBS and Paramount can litigate their suit there and win — TA! DA! — a big, fat unsecured claim. In bankruptcy, even if they win, they lose. Besides, if they win a judgment in district court, they will still end up in bankruptcy court. Why waste time and money on litigation in district court? Go where you will end up anyway.

    • just to mention too Patrice, have seen big whale threaten little whale, not to eat little whale, but to extract ‘tribute.’ I know you know what I mean. When I was in law school, the term was ‘extracting protection.’ Meaning a carom shot legal strategy that looked like x on the surface, but underneath was actually y –by using hitting x in order to carom shot a second play of z into the pocket. It was taught by a old old lawyer who was one of the chiefs in big corp lawsuit wins re competitors and/or infringers. The point is to force a sharing agreement of littler whale with bigger whale.

  5. You can view Prelude to Axanar and the Vulcan scene clipped from Axanar at axanarproductions.com. See them while you can.

    David Gerrold — who wrote “The Trouble with Tribbles” episode of Star Trek — posted his opinion of the matter on Facebook.

    My thoughts? Copyright or no, it is not good for your brand to squelch fanfic. CBS and Paramount are saying, “Hey, it’s okay as long as the acting is wooden, the writing is bad, and the production is cheesy. But if it looks professional we’re going to slam you.” I hope the blowback from the fans costs them billions of dollars.

    Me? Last Star Trek film I saw was Star Trek: The Future Begins. Hated it. I despise J J Abrams, Robert Orci, and Alex Kurtzman. I prefer fanfic, because fanfic respects the canon . . . unlike the studio.

  6. The existence of so much fan product — the vast majority of which is leagues better than what the studio is producing — should be telling Paramount/CBS something. I mean, Chris Pine as Kirk? Really? I guess if the intent is a comedy, you’ve got it going with the reboots, but fans die a little inside with every release.

    It’s the old fans, the ones it seems are no longer worth the effort, that will flock to the stuff like this movie. If the studio would agree to split some amount of profit, they’d make tons of money.

    As excited as I was to hear of the new series coming out, I’m not paying access for one show, which probably won’t be any good anyway. But let someone who loves the original ideas of ST produce a show, on regular TV, and I’d be on it.

    Meh. What do I know? I’m just an old fan, who wrote fan fiction, and bought issues of magazines for snippets of ST, and went to the theater to see all the movies, and watched all the follow-up series, and bought the books, and the merchandise, and…

    • I don’t understand why they don’t just license the use of the IP for this level of fan production. If the thing makes some cash they can take a fee/cut and everyone is happy.

  7. I wonder if the reason Paramount is picking on this particular ST fan film might be because it hits on the premise of the new Star Trek series that launches next January. One of the early speculations regarding Star Trek Into Darkness was that the story revolved around Garth of Izar, who is the subject of Axanar.

    • I don’t know that that’s the premise of the new series, I’m just saying it could be the reason for this lawsuit. Why did they pick this particular film? Because it’s seen as competition for the new series.

  8. I think this is an interesting case. Generally, fanfic is accepted so long as you’re not profiting off it. It’s akin to making something for your private use with your own resources. If you want to write Star Wars stories based on the new movie, you can. You can even post it on your website and it can be shared, because no one is profiting from it.

    This use of crowdfunding an unauthorized version takes it into a slightly different area of law, I think (note: I’m not an attorney, so this is only my weird take). Even if they give away the product — and they should — no one should be profiting from it. They should even take care to do something with any money left over to that it goes somewhere other than into the maker’s pockets.

    What we’re seeing is a blurring of the lines, when thanks to technological innovations, it’s possible to make a movie that’s nearly indistinguishable from the Hollywood product, and distribute it on channels such as YouTube that will look just as good on my computer screen as the Hollywood product.

    I doubt it represents a real threat to Trek’s IP owners, except that they’ll make a better movie that will please the fans much more than J.J. Abrams’ abortions (every generation has its popular hack director, and JJA is ours).

    I think of it this way from my research into Sherlock Holmes’ parodies and pastiches from Conan Doyle’s lifetime (I’m publishing collections of them). The quality of them varied from real good to meh. None of them approached Conan Doyle’s works; they simply can’t write like him. Conan Doyle still held a monopoly on those types of stories, but the parodies and pastiches kept Holmes in the public eye and popularized him, spreading the word to people who hadn’t read the stories, but would be more likely to try them. I doubt a single story ever cost ACD a dime, and they sure filled his pockets in return.

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