Star Trek was a groundbreaking series, in hindsight. At the time it’s original five year run died after three. While its fans did not number enough to qualify as “worth knowing” to NBC and others, they were rabid. They were also different. There were fans of diverse ethnicities, something TV executives didn’t care about until it was a thing, scientists, high ranking politicians from all over the world, Dr. Martin Luther King was a huge fan (and helped save the show for a while), young people tired of being force fed stuff they were supposed like such as Dobie Gillis, et al, and, obviously, women, those mythical creatures you only heard about before then. Sure, Kirk was a horn dog, but there were many women on that show who were his intellectual and physical equal. Powerful women in multiple colors was unheard of before Star Trek. NBC, probably confused as to what to do with a demographic that didn’t fit the “white male, dad, 2.5 kids, in the suburbs, who likes TV dinners, and Winstons” mold, dicked the show around, slashing its budget, and finally killed it in 1969.
This is memorialized as one of the Top 10 Worst Moves in TV History.
But a funny thing happened on the way to oblivion. Kaiser Broadcasting, a division of Paramount, was looking for a show on the cheap that wouldn’t require them to butt heads with the traditional demographic. NBC was happy to toss them Star Trek and they were glad to have it. By 1972 it was one of the highest rated shows in syndication primarily because Kaiser moved its time slot to when young people and others could watch it. Also in 1972 fans held the first Star Trek convention in New York. Over 3,000 people showed up and, suddenly, everyone involved knew they were on to something.
As conventions blossomed and fans began showing up in costumes, Paramount realized they had something bigger than they were used to. By 1979 they put up the cash to create and release the first Star Trek movie. Which was horrible. But, another funny thing happened on the way back to oblivion. The movie got re-edited, put on Paramount’s many TV outlets, and became a smash hit.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Flash forward to now.
Along with the movies and spin off shows there has also been a long tradition of fans creating their own visions of Star Trek. Many of those fan made films developed their own fan bases.
The deal was simple, as long as the films were not commercially released Paramount’s lawyers turned a blind eye. The reasons were simple; most of them were of poor quality, and served to reinforce the camaraderie that Star Trek was supposed to envision.
Everything was moving along just fine until Axanar came along. Looking for around $10,000 in Kickstarter funding they raised over $100,000 and set about making the short film, Prelude to Axanar.
Here’s the blurb.
“Axanar” is the story of Garth of Izar & the Battle of Axanar, a pivotal event in the history of the Federation.
Before I go on I should note that, initially, this was called Star Trek: Axanar, and later Star Trek: Prelude to Axanar, and then Axanar: The Four Years War before just settling in on Axanar. Since they could have just as easily called it The Further Adventures of Spot the Wonderfish as a working title, none of that matters. At least not legally.
Now, here’s where things get fun.
In December 2015 CBS sued Axanar’s production company for copyright infringement. Axanar responded by saying “Which copyright?” And now all hell has broken loose.
First I’ll let the show’s producer, Alec Peters, give you a lay of the land.
Axanar is a cut above the usual fan-produced movie, said Peters. “There’s a reason why Prelude to Axanar and Axanar look like professional movies, because we have professionals working on them,” he said. “These are professionals. They do this for a living. They’re not fans who are voice actors, or Elvis impersonators who have a hobby and have always wanted to play Captain Kirk. That’s not to knock fan films. I’m just saying, if you want volunteers, you get a certain quality. You want professionals? You’ve got to pay for them. It’s real simple.”
Peters believes that the reason they were targeted was due to this professional quality of the production. “It’s real simple,” he said. “Because of our quality. “Star Trek Continues is a fan film. Amateur actors, beautiful sets, well-done photography. But it’s a fan film. There’s no way you take that for a real TV show. Star Trek: New Voyages? Fan film. It looks good — well directed — but no one’s ever going to take that for a network TV show.”
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But Peters thinks that since they “violate CBS copyright less than any other fan film,” CBS and Paramount shouldn’t have gone after them. “Star Trek Continues and Star Trek: New Voyages violate more than we do,” he said. “Axanar doesn’t call itself Star Trek anymore, nor does it use iconic characters like Kirk, Spock and McCoy.
“We don’t use the chevron. We don’t use the uniforms you’re used to seeing. We don’t use (the Original Series) bridge or sets. Those two productions are entirely copyright infringement.”
It’s probable that raising over a million dollars caught the attention of Paramount and CBS too, but Peters believes that since other productions have raised money and have not been sued, Axanar should not have been sued either. [They] “already said that it’s OK, basically, letting these guys go,” said Peters. “Star Trek Continues has raised $400,000, and you haven’t said anything about that. Star Trek: Renegades has raised $800,000, and they use characters from the original too … They waived their rights because they let this go on for so long.”
Peters also claims that tacit approval was given by CBS as long as they didn’t “make any money off of the project.”
If you want to read a complete breakdown of all the legal proceedings, and filings, just CLICK HERE and have fun.
But, to summarize, CBS says Axanar bad, Alec Peters and his lawyers say Axanar good.
Now, let’s move on to the fun world of unintended consequences.
CBS’ suit claims that it wants $150,000 per incident of copyright infringement. Axanar claims that lawsuits are not like making spaghetti, you can’t just toss something against the wall and see if it sticks. They want a detailed list of the alleged infringements so they know exactly what’s at stake.
So far so good.
And this is where CBS could get into trouble. Let’s take some basic elements.
Warp Drive. The term has been used by numerous films, video games, TV shows, and is even used by NASA as a bullet point to describe Faster than Light Travel.
Phasers. Not just a weapon any more, it’s a kids’ video game too.
The Federation. That term, and it’s logical variants, has been used so often that it’s now considered a TV Trope. A shortcut to let fans know who the good guys are. Hint: They’re always members of the Federation.
Star Trek itself. What is it? You think you know. It seems like an easy answer. But, which version are we talking about? Which variant? Rights and licenses have been handed down, parsed out, set aside, and reworked, since the late 70’s. There are numerous fiction books, cartoons, canonical technical guides, TV shows, movies, characters, and the current reboots, with an entirely new set of canonical characters and locations. And it’s unclear what rights, if any, CBS owns in each.
NBC broadcasted Star Trek, Desilu owned Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry’s production company Norway Productions produced it, Paramount bought Desilu (including Star Trek) in 1967, some time after the series was canceled Paramount offered Gene Roddenberry the rights to Star Trek, Gene couldn’t afford Paramounts asking price of One million dollars (I have seen a lower price mentioned) to purchase the rights. Viacom purchased Paramount in 1994. Viacom purchased CBS in 2000. CBS & Viacom are split into two seperate companies in 2005. Paramount Televison is renamed to CBS Television in 2009. In the end no matter how it is sliced up and renamed, both CBS and Paramount are owned by Sumner Redstone who owns National Amusements that controls Viacom, CBS and Paramount. That’s one snaky paper trail.
Thanks to Daiv Golden for the correct chain of title.
I bring this up to point out that the judge could rule, and there is plenty of precedent for this to happen, that while specific groupings of elements are covered under copyright law, i.e., a complete movie or TV show, the underlying elements are in the public domain.
Simply put, this was not well thought out by CBS.
They have another problem too. They are claiming that the film, Axanar, infringes on their copyrights but the film hasn’t been made yet. Just the prelude. Which is not the same thing. In other words they are suing for something which may happen. That could set a chilling precedent if allowed.
Lastly, not to be crass, but if they were truly interested in protecting their copyrights they would have shut down Sex Trek and its offshoots, years ago. While the aggregate is clearly parody, and porn, several of those films, and there are a lot of them, look like they were shot on the original sets and even use the uniforms, emblems of rank, and plot protocols, from the original show.
Personally I can’t wait to see the defense show clips of those videos in court.
“Your Honor, I would now like to ask the Court to ‘Boldly Cum Where No Man Has Cum Before.'”
Of course, I guess the one bright spot in this mess is that we’re almost guaranteed to get “Assanar: The Four Beer Whore.”
3/2/16: This post has been updated to show the full chain of title.
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