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Paramount, CBS Sue Makers of Crowdfunded 'Star Trek' Fan Film

30 Dec, 2015 By: John Latchem

In a move that could test the legal distinctions between crowdsourcing and commercial enterprises, Paramount and CBS Dec. 29 filed a lawsuit charging the makers of the fan film Star Trek: Axanar with copyright infringement.

The filmmakers behind Axanar, some of whom have worked on official “Star Trek” projects in the past, have been promoting production of their fan film through the Internet (AxanarProductions.com, SavetheFederation.com) and appearances at various conventions and fan gatherings, raising approximately $1 million to fund the project through Indiegogo. The feature-length Axanar is touted as the first independent “Star Trek” film — a professionally produced endeavor much more elaborate than typical low-budget fan-produced efforts; it even earned the endorsement of original "Star Trek" star George Takei.

An early Kickstarter campaign yielded funds to produce a short film called Prelude to Axanar that presents a documentary style recap of the events to be featured in the film, which depicts a war between the Federation and the Klingons 20 years before the days of Captain Kirk. The short is readily available at YouTube and premiered during the 2014 San Diego Comic-Con International.

The federal lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court of Central California, is a joint action on behalf of CBS Studios, which owns the “Star Trek” TV shows and intellectual property, and Paramount Pictures, which produces the official “Star Trek” feature films.

“In addition to ‘The Original Series,’ there have been five further Star Trek television series totaling thousands of episodes,” the suit states, though there are only 726 total episodes among the six shows and the unaired original series pilot. A 13th film, Star Trek Beyond, is slated for release in 2016 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the franchise. CBS is planning a new “Trek” series for 2017.

Prelude to Axanar is directly and unabashedly intended to be a derivative work of Star Trek … and uses numerous copyrighted elements from the Star Trek works” including characters, species, costumes, makeup, weapons, starships and themes, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit asks for an injunction stopping the production, plus damages up to $150,000 for each instance of infringement, as well as legal and other fees.

Axanar’s producers said fan films in general are a common way to express enthusiasm for “Star Trek,” and Axanar’s cast includes several actors from official “Trek” series, including one reprising a pivotal character. They pointed out that numerous prior projects, such as the “Star Trek Continues” Web series, or Star Trek Renegades, which features more "Trek" actors in familiar roles but which made less than Axanar through crowdfunding, have not been targeted by studio lawyers, meaning Axanar is being unfairly singled out.

“Fan films — whether related to ‘Star Trek,’ ‘Star Wars,’ ‘Harry Potter,’ ‘Lord of the Rings,’ ‘Power Rangers,’ ‘Batman’ or any other franchise — are labors of love that keep fans engaged, entertained, and keep favorite characters alive in the hearts of fans. Like other current fan films, Axanar entered production based on a very long history and relationship between fandom and studios. We’re not doing anything new here,” Axanar producer Alec Peters said in a statement posted to BleedingCool.com.

Peters told The Hollywood Reporter he met with CBS to make sure his film wasn’t crossing any legal boundaries, and that he believed the studio was fine with his efforts as long as he didn’t profit from them. As such, Peters has explicitly stated at conventions that he cannot sell the finished film, and that Blu-ray copies of it and other merchandise are available only as perks for donations.

The lawsuit, however, claims materials related to Axanar are being illegally distributed, and that the film’s producers “apparently contend that they are entitled to create, distribute, market, advertise, promote, sell, or offer for sale derivative works of the ‘Star Trek’ Copyrighted Works.”

The filing also makes numerous references to the Kickstarter and Indiegogo campaigns as the only examples of the producers potentially making money off the project, raising the question of whether such fundraising can be considered a commercial enterprise in the context of copyrights regardless if the intent is to make a profit.

Peters’ statement expressed hope that the dispute could be “worked out in a fair and amicable manner,” but also suggested that the ire motivating the lawsuit was misplaced.

“Since the original ‘Star Trek’ TV series, when the letter writing campaign by fans got NBC to greenlight a third season of ‘Star Trek,’ fan support has been critical to the success of the franchise,” Peters said in the statement. “It is the ‘Star Trek’ fans themselves who are most affected here, for by suing Axanar Productions to stop making our movie and collect so-called damages, CBS and Paramount are suing the very people who have enthusiastically maintained the universe created by Gene Roddenberry so many years ago.”

After news of the lawsuit hit, many fans, and even a few filmmakers associated with the Axanar film, took to the Internet to suggest that Paramount and CBS were afraid of the notion that the fans could make “Star Trek” better than the studio could. “Star Trek” has been off the air since 2005, and the last two films, while commercially successful, aren’t well liked by some of the franchise’s more vocal fans. Likewise, the recently released first trailer for Star Trek Beyond was heavily mocked by fans online for its tone and perceptions that the rebooted films have strayed from the core values of the franchise.

Then again, it’s not uncommon for studios to want to avoid confusion in the market as to which works fans should consider canonical or not, especially when the studios are planning their own new installments.

This past summer, 20th Century Fox shut down an “Alien” fan film, Alien Identity, that would have featured Aliens actors Carrie Henn and Ricco Ross playing relatives of their earlier characters. Fox is currently producing its own official franchise continuations, such as Ridley Scott’s sequel to Prometheus, titled Alien: Covenant, slated for 2017.

Similarly, Saban Entertainment, which is producing a big-budget "Power Rangers" reboot, threatened legal action earlier this year to remove a gritty, 'R'-rated fan-made interpretation from YouTube.


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