Authors: Lanning G. Bryer, Danielle Weitzman | Practices: , , | Tags: , ,

Resistance is Futile: Axanar Productions settles with CBS and Paramount to end copyright infringement suit over fan film

Axanar will finally beam down to YouTube after CBS and Paramount Pictures (“Paramount”) reached a settlement with Axanar Productions to end all ongoing litigation regarding the Star Trek fan film.

After the success of their 21-minute fan film entitled Prelude to Axanar, which had debuted at San Diego Comic-Con in 2014, the company raised $1.13 million via crowdfunding to fund the creation and release of the Star Trek: Axanar film, a feature-length production. The planned film was developed as a prequel to the original Star Trek series, covering the story of Garth of Izar and his battle against the Klingon Empire during the Four Years War. The character of Garth had appeared in an episode of the original Star Trek series in its final season in 1969.

On December 29, 2015, however, CBS and Paramount filed their lawsuit, claiming Prelude to Axanar and Star Trek: Axanar (“the Axanar Works”) infringed their rights in the Klingon language and “innumerable copyright elements of Star Trek, including its settings, characters, species, and themes” (“the Star Trek Copyright Works”)1. The suit also sought monetary damages and an injunction restraining the producers from distributing, marketing, and selling the film.

CBS and Paramount had traditionally refrained from taking action against fan films based on the Star Trek franchise, however, no fans had undertaken such efforts to create a full-length feature film or a fan film on the scale of Star Trek: Axanar. The Guidelines for Fan Films2 appears to address many of the aspects of the production of Star Trek: Axanar that set it apart from earlier fan works, including limitations on duration, crowdfunding, costumes and props, distribution, advertising, and merchandising. The Guidelines also prevent the use of professional actors and film crews and the compensation of participants.

On January 4, 2017, Judge R. Gary Klausner of the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles ruled that the Axanar Works have objective substantial similarity to the Star Trek Copyright Works, including the Klingon and Vulcan species, the Klingon Officer’s uniform, and settings from planets such as Axanar, Qo’noS, and Vulcan 3 . However, Judge Klausner denied CBS and Paramount’s summary judgment motion, as the determination as to whether an ordinary, reasonable person would find the total concept and feel of the works to be substantially similar would be best made by a jury 4. It is important to note that the substantial similarity test is not an element of a copyright infringement claim, but instead a doctrine that helps courts adjudicate whether copying essential elements of the work that are original actually occurred when elements of the work are allegedly appropriated, rather than a total reproduction.

While the jury trial was scheduled for January 31st, the parties finalized a settlement eleven days prior to the commencement of the trial. As part of the settlement, Axanar Productions and its owner, Alec Peters, publicly acknowledged the Axanar works “were not approved by Paramount or CBS, and that both works crossed boundaries acceptable to CBS and Paramount relating to copyright law.” Under the terms of the settlement, the filmmakers will be permitted to release two 15-minute movies on YouTube, instead of their planned 90-minute film, and cannot be shown with ads.

This case has engendered a fair amount of interest and discussion amongst fans and fan-filmakers. One prolific Star Trek fan-filmmaker and actor, James Cawley, was supportive of the Guidelines, noting that fans in the past had “a few unwritten ground rules” that they abided by. He also stated that not only did he “fully respect CBS/PARAMOUNT”, but “if [he] owned [Star Trek], [he] would feel the same way”5.

However, the executive producer of the Star Trek reboot films, J.J. Abrams, was critical of the lawsuit, asserting “this wasn’t an appropriate way to deal with the fans6.” Abrams also indicated that Justin Lin, director of 2016’s Star Trek Beyond, was “outraged by this as a longtime fan” and instrumental in pushing for the settlement agreement.

Now that the stardust has settled, Trekkies may continue to produce fan films, provided they adhere to the cosmic rules of the Star Trek Guidelines for Fan Films and respect the Intellectual Property rights of CBS and Paramount Pictures.

  3. Paramount Pictures Corporation et al v. Axanar Productions, Inc. et al (C.D. Cal. 2017).
  4. Range RdMusicIncv. E. Coast Foods, Inc., 668 F.3d 1148, 1154 (9th Cir.2012).
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