The Star Trek Controversy: CBS and Paramount vs. Fan Films

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 Independently made Star Trek projects are nothing new. The first Trek fan-made movie was filmed in Super 8 back in 1978. Since the introduction of the internet, Star Trek fan films and ongoing series have exploded in number. Within the last decade, we’ve had Trek fan series like Starship Exeter, Starship Farragut, Star Trek: Intrepid, Star Trek the New Voyages (AKA Star Trek Phase 2) and, the best one of all, Star Trek Continues, to name a few. We’ve also had full-length independent films like Star Trek: Of Gods and Men and Star Trek Horizon, among others. Paramount (and their parent company Viacom) who own the rights to Star Trek, have never had much of a problem with these indie projects, as long as they were non-profit ventures. All these Trek projects were labors of love by devoted fans, so Paramount didn’t care.

 However, Star Trek Axanar has changed all that. The fan-made Star Trek: Axanar is a planned feature length fan film that takes place within the Star Trek universe. It focuses on the Federation’s first war with the Klingons, and features Garth of Izar, a Trek character introduced in the classic Star Trek TV series (1966-1969) in the episode “Whom Gods Destroy”.

 The Axanar Productions team, which is headed by Executive Producer Alec Peters, successfully raised over $100,000 to produce the 20-minute short featurette called Prelude to Axanar. The production values of this short-film are outstanding and proved that a studio-quality film could be made by non-studio independent filmmakers. The teaser film has received high praise from Trek fans. (It’s available for viewing online.)

 Following the positive reception of the short featurette, the Axanar team continued fund-raising on Kickstarter, hoping to proceed with the film. Helped by the endorsement of George Takei (who played Lt. Sulu on the classic series) they raised an additional $1.3 Million to complete the full feature-length product. Before they could begin, however, Paramount and CBS intervened.

 Given the mixed reception and diminishing box office returns of their big-screen Star Trek films, produced by JJ Abrams, Paramount is taking notice of these unauthorized projects which are alternatives for long-time fans who want their Trek-fix but don’t care for the new films. Also, the buzz about Star Trek Axanar took some of the attention away from the release of the studio’s Star Trek Beyond, which is underperforming in theaters. Paramount is beginning to see fan-made films as actual competition. Now that they are planning to launch their new series Star Trek Discovery—which will debut on January 2017 at CBS All Access—Paramount and CBS are worried about the franchise’s future and so are taking steps to eliminate the competition from fan films.

 At first Paramount and CBS sued the Axanar team for copyright infringement. The movie, therefore, did not start production early this year as it was planned to. However, things seemed to get a little better for the Axanar group when fan backlash was boosted by the aid of Justin Lin, who directed Star Trek Beyond. Lin was reportedly “outraged” and said that this was not the proper way to deal with the fans.

 After that, it seemed that CBS and Paramount were backing-off from their lawsuit. The joy of fans was short-lived because, following this, Paramount has issued a new edict for all fan-made Star Trek films. They instituted Official Guideline that must be adhered to in order to make an unauthorized Trek project without being sued. Most of the rules listed are minor and perfectly understandable; however, there are four rules in these guidelines which are crippling to fan-films.

 The first controversial rule is that no fan-project can be more than 15-minutes long. All the Trek series and films listed above—and most others, as well—are longer than 15 minutes. Some fan films exceed the 90-minute mark.

 This leads to the second troubling rule, which says that no fan project can be more than two-parts, and that ongoing series are prohibited. This has put a stop to the production of several ongoing Trek projects.

 The third problematic rule says that no Trek indie project can have a self-funded budget of over $50,000. Star Trek Axanar has already passed that fundraising mark. They’ll need more than $50,000 to maintain studio quality production values on a full-length film.

 The fourth vexing rule mandates that any actor appearing in the project must be an unpaid amateur and “cannot be currently or previously employed on any Star Trek series, films, production of DVDs or with any of CBS or Paramount Pictures’ licensees.” This not only eliminates Trek alumni like Nichelle Nichols and Walter Koenig, who appeared in Of Gods and Men, it also prevents other professionals from appearing, such as Alan Ruck who played Capt. Harriman in Star Trek Generations and reprised the role in Of Gods and men; Former Doctor Who star Colin Baker who appeared in Star Trek Continues; or Richard Hatch, who starred in both versions of Battlestar Galactica, and who is cast as Klingon Supreme Leader Kharn in Star Trek Axanar. 

 Several online Trek series have stopped production for the time being. One planned series that was in pre-production, called The Blood of Tiberius (about the granddaughter of James Kirk) has been scrapped. The fan film Star Trek Renagades got around the rules by eliminating “Star Trek” from the title and removing any mention of Star Fleet or any other Trek property.

 The production team behind Axanar has tried to get around the rules by using the “Fair Use” laws. They filed for a “declaratory relief” saying that the Axanar work isn’t an infringement on any copyrights, maintaining that “the works in controversy represent a fair use of their copyrights.”

 Nothing has officially been resolved at this point and it’s unclear whether or not all these fan series and films will be able to go back in production. If they do, will Paramount and CBS really pursue litigation for all of them?

 While it’s true that Paramount has the legal right to maintain control over their intellectual property, is Justin Lin right that they are they sabotaging themselves by ostracizing fans? Are these fan-made projects actually good free publicity for the official franchise, bringing increased awareness of Star Trek, or are they an unfair use of some else’s property? What do you think?