Last month, we blew up a small story about a Star Trek fan film that has found itself as nerd equivalent of some historic Supreme Court case. To summarize: a group of Star Trek fans created a fan film that is super goddamned impressive. They’ve run multiple crowdfunding campaigns to support said film, resulting in more than a million bucks in backing for a final product that — and you can judge this for yourself — is on par with, if not better than, the Hollywood Star Trek outtings we are being offered. Now the project faces a number of distressing legal issues, and not even the internet hivemind has a clear solution.
To give you an example of the level of quality involved in the film at the heart of this debate, check out this prelude film that sets the stage for what Axanar will be:
So what’s the problem? Paramount owns the rights to Star Trek for films and CBS is about to launch a new TV outing, so the last thing they want to see is a third version of the Star Trek story being released to the public. Paramount, in an effort to stop this Axanar film from releasing, has pre-sued for copyright infringement, as what you might except from a major IP holder.
The twist here is that the fan film team fought back against Paramount, and their defense has an interesting case. See, Paramount claims that a film set in the Star Trek universe violates “thousands” of copyrighted concepts — but the Axanar team said “Hey, name them.” If Paramount cannot define Trekkiness in simple, definable terms, then of course outside creators have access to contribute to the universe.
We’ve taken a backseat for a few weeks to see how this space nightmare plays out. Instead of the expected outcome — some kind of settlement — the legal sci-fi battle rages onward. No one from the official Star Trek camp will go on record about currently open litigation because of course they won’t — and the Axanar team has been silent for similar reasons, so I decided to open the internet floodgates. Here are some perspectives on this issue from big fans and those close to the Axanar community. (Spoiler: there are no easy answers in a grey area this big.)
Star Trek is a work of narrative fiction in which a collection of human and alien worlds have formed into a UN-style government known as the United Federation of Planets. They way they both explore the universe and project their power is through their fleet of “Star Ships,” which are much like the American naval forces of World War Two. Star Trek is about the Federation, and if someone wants to make a fan film about a Federation ship, they’re making a Star Trek fan film. It’s that simple.
The biggest issue for Paramount is going to center around the idea of “cannon” in the Star Trek universe. The attempt to claim such a wide swath is going to be difficult because of their own actions throughout the several series, games, etc. For example - in making “Enterprise” - they directly contradict the film “First Contact” in their view of the Vulcan people. In Enterprise, they are arguably illogical, hostile and aggressive. This is a far cry from their portrayal in almost every other form of media as the calm, logical, thinkers of the Federation. They will have an impossible task in demonstrating a real common thread universe.
Star Wars and Trek (respectively) have rich, multi-cultural followings. Shit, even the IRS made a film about it. Paramount is trying to define something they accidentally let get out of control. In this current “official” universe Picard exists, Cardassians (the good kind) exist and really it’s Paramount’s problem to deal with — not someone who raised their own money and made a movie all for the love of their favorite science fiction story.
I find the Axanar team’s main legal tactic kind of terrifying in terms of its potential to backfire. I’m not a lawyer, but it seems like it might be easy — almost trivial, even — to legally define what constitutes Star Trek, or a Star Trek story, and then use that definition as a cudgel with which to bludgeon all fan works into oblivion if they feel like it. Because the very breadth of the existing shows and movies means any definition that counts is going to have to be all-encompassing on the level of, like, a Dyson sphere. Think about it: we already know Star Trek doesn’t need to care which universe it’s in, or whether there’s a ship called Enterprise or a guy called Kirk in it, or even if there’s a pointy emblem all the characters wear; there are official shows or movies that break all of these rules, if you can even call ‘em that. There don’t have to be Klingons. It doesn’t have to be in the future. You don’t even need ships that run on dilithium-modulated matter/antimatter conversion! What does that leave you with? Something alarmingly basic. Here, I’ll even take a stab at it: “Star Trek is a science fictional setting in which humans and aliens working for an organization called Starfleet explore spacetime and/or attempt to promote peaceful coexistence.” But is something that general even legally permissible? I hope not.
Axanar takes place after Enterprise, and in the same years as Star Trek TOS but a different ship/different part of the galaxy…. right? According to the current movies none of the original series happened anymore (so that Abrams could do whatever he wanted before he ditched out for Star Wars) or happened in a pocket universe? Alternate/parallel universe? Parallel timeline? Whatever you want to call it, they essentially made TOS irrelevant so they can have Chris Pine ride a motorcycle over an explosion in slow motion. If everything post Kirk and Spock meeting now no longer happened according to the new films which are now the “canon” wouldn’t all of TNG, DS9, and Voyager now fall into the dreaded “expanded universe” category? Shit. That means Enterprise is now the only series that counts as canon. Shit.
Star Trek is not a place, Star Trek is a sensibility and an approach and a belief system and a recognizable narrative structure (what you fear doing is what you have to do even if it will fail in order to succeed). It’s definitely not Prelude to Axanar which looks like all technology and spaceships and special effects. But I know why Paramount is worried: the effects look pretty good, in fact they look very good. But effects aren’t Star Trek. Star Trek is the characters.
Even the most ardent Trekkie has movies and episodes they avoid or just plain hate, because they sour the otherwise complex and beloved universe that has been so intricately woven over the years. Ultimately, Paramount didn’t know how to properly evolve the universe. Star Trek isn’t just some space fantasy, its a futuristic extrapolation of our current complex world. They’ve learned from the mistakes we’re currently making. The near future Earth is an idyllic planet that is headquarters to a galactic federation of planets and has moved well past being a capitalist society. I’m feeling like the greatest good here would be for Paramount to take a page from that book, and make certain general Trek assets available to fans who want to produce new content.
The Star Trek universe is built on fan participation, which has shaped all the spinoffs and built a cottage industry for the writers of tie-in novels. Many of these writers got their start as fan fiction writers, so the “extended universe” of tie-in novels is already a universe of fan-created material.
Fan films in general promote a franchise, even when they are obviously homemade labors of love. Unlike the action flick, Beastie Boys-driven roller coaster most nerds aren’t looking for. Axanar is easily distinguishable from cannon. It doesn’t even have “Star Trek” in the title. I’ve tried to put myself in the studio’s shoes in regards to this because how would I feel if my property were being (for lack of a better word) stolen? But in this instance, all they are seeing is dollar signs, they are not thinking about the fans or the quality of the franchise. I hope that Axanar wins and we get more good quality fan films to compensate for the lack of “official” material.
Since The Original Series was cancelled after its third season, countless fan creations from movies to fan series, to books to comic books and countless conventions have been spawned not only in love with this sci-fi franchise but this larger idea that Rodenberry was going for, that one day humans would rise above all these things we’re still grappling with: war, poverty, disease, hunger, racism, sexism, and that we would travel the stars in search of friendship and learning, expanding and bettering ourselves and the lives of others. So you can put a copyright on basic concepts, ship designs, characters, certain designs, etc. But how can you put a copyright on that larger idea? Paramount isn’t losing money on this.
You’ve got a fanbase that feels left out, you’ve got a series of professionally made fan films showing up online, and then BOOM, one of those films, my personal favorite Axanar, raises $1 million in crowdfunding. That’s a professional budget. If you’re the head of CBS or Paramount or whoever the hell owns the rights, I don’t even know these days, what would you do? You’ve got a big budget movie coming out this summer, you’ve got a new TV series with some pretty heavy hitters. I’ll tell you what you do — you scramble to shut it all down before it comes out, or at least get enough of a piece of it that it benefits your position to see it come to light. Good business, terrible PR. There’s no way to win. “But the real fans want to see this!” I know they do, hell I do, and that’s the problem. CBS and Paramount have done their best to put out a good product. They’ve even started a new TV series that sounds like it’s coming from great minds with history attached to the franchise. Why on Earth would I let upstarts run with my property? I’d take them to court and try to shut them down before they make me look bad. Both sides seem to have an interesting take on the legal case behind copyright infringement, but copyright law is being redefined everyday.
So what’s the take away from all these perspectives? We all want to see Axanar — that’s about the only unifying thing. Beyond that, it seems like your perspective varies depending on whether you think Paramount has a history of being shitty to Trek fans. Some of these viewpoints really understand where Paramount might be coming from in trying to protect an IP, but if you’ve traditionally mismanaged that control and feel threatened by the fans taking it back, there’s a real debate to be had here. We’re excited to see what Paramount’s next steps are, because they have an outrageously complicated prompt to answer here, and honestly their best chance of winning is to get these fans on their side.