WASHINGTON. Let’s say you’re the ultimate Star Trek fan. In fact, you’re so obsessed, you can’t wait to add your amateur Star Trek fan film to the sci-fi cannon launched by legendary series creator Gene Roddenberry.
As your story opens on the Klingon homeworld, your Starfleet hero insults one of the spiny-faced behemoths, saying,
“Hab SoSlI’ Quch!”
Which roughly translated means,
“Your Mother has a smooth forehead!”
But even before the epic bar fight on Kronos can begin, killjoy Earthling and US District Court Judge Robert G. Klausner would like you to know that uttering these words on film violates US copyright law. Beware: Copyright infringements are futile. Our Planet of Lawyers is now a place where no Star Trek fan film can go again.
Even legendary Star Trek Captain Kirk could never defeat corporate lawyers
Judge Klausner’s ruling is a blow to those Star Trek fan film makers wishing to fill the gaps in the Star Trek canon by expanding the franchise’s mythology at their own expense and without a penny’s profit.
In his 2017 ruling, Judge Klausner said:
“The use of the Federation logo, stardate, transporters and warp drive, weapons such as phasers and photon torpedoes, and the Klingon language… [are] copyrighted works as science fiction action adventure, specifically a military space drama.”
In other words, the Star Trek franchise – and everything connected to it – is the exclusive property of Paramount Pictures and CBS studios under the corporate umbrella of Viacom. Fan film makers need to be afraid. Very afraid.
So when is “fair use” unfair? Whenever the big corporations say
Judge Klausner also dismissed a defense motion claiming “fair use,” which under copyright law allows:
“… brief excerpts of copyright material… under certain circumstances [to] be quoted verbatim for purposes such as criticism, news reporting, teaching, and research, without the need for permission from or payment to the copyright holder.”
Klausner’s ruling was in answer to a 2014 lawsuit filed against Axanar Productions, Inc., which raised around $1.5 million through the crowdfunding website Kickstarter.
Fan film “Amateur” productions should never look slick
Many a Star Trek fan film of lesser quality can be found elsewhere online (i.e., HERE and HERE). But Paramount studios obviously felt threatened by the high production value of the slick, documentary-style short film entitled “Prelude to Axanar.” The Star Trek fan film makers designed their short movie to attract public funding for their proposed 90-minute feature chronicling the “Four Years War.”
Whom the gods – and corporate lawyers – destroy
The filmmakers based their tale on a character introduced in the original Star Trek series episode entitled “Whom the Gods Destroy.” The antagonist in that episode, Starfleet Captain Garth of Izar (Steve Ihnat), resides in a facility for the criminally insane.
“When I was a cadet at the academy,” says Captain James Kirk (William Shatner), “his exploits were required reading. He’s one of my heroes.”
Garth’s exploits form the core of the Axanar fan film saga.
Following Judge Klausner’s ruling, the studios issued a list of restrictions on fan film makers going forward.
- Fan film makers must use licensed uniforms and props purchased commercially.
- New fan films must be no longer than fifteen minutes, with a story that concludes within two episodes.
- No Star Trek alums may appear in said fan films.
- Fan film episodes should cost no more than $50,000.
Axanar Productions recently announced that the company reached an agreement with Paramount and CBS to abide by these copyright restrictions. More problematically, they also admitted to paying legal fees in the amount of $500,000.
Fair use vs copyright infringement
Jonathan Bailey at the website Plagiarism Today, notes:
“Fan creation has always had copyright hanging over it like a sword of Damocles. Rights holders have largely tolerated fan fiction and fan films… Now the relationship is strained. Budgets have swollen on original creation and fan works have grown to be seen as stiff competition for official productions.”
Certainly, thanks to crowdfunding and the creativity of budding filmmakers and the affordability and advances of computer graphics software, only the limits of one’s talent and energy constrain the possibilities of film production in 2018. Except when creative types fun into the serious constraints of legal pitfalls.
Marching through Georgia
At least partially as a result of the recent copyright litigation, Axanar Productions’ head, Alec Peters (who plays Captain Garth of Izar in “Prelude to Axanar”), closed his California studio and moved himself and his production company to Atlanta, Georgia.
Meanwhile, on the Axanar Productions’ website, Peters says his “goal is to have everything in the can by end of February  and a release date next summer. If all goes as planned, another Red-Carpet event at Comic Con will be planned… And as always, live long and prosper!”
Top Image: Ares class starship emerges from interstellar cloud
before battle in “Prelude to Axanar.” Screen capture.