Settled: Star Trek Owners, Axanar Avoid Copyright Trial

By January 20, 2017

Just days after a federal judge appeared to open the door for the release of financial records behind a so-called “independent” Star Trek fan-film, the studios that own the 50-year-old franchise and the people behind Star Trek: Axanar have settled.

CBS Studios Inc. and Paramount Pictures, who sued Axanar Productions and its principal Alec Peters in December 2015 for copyright infringement, issued a joint statement early Friday to GeekNation saying the lawsuit was now over and that Axanar was admitting it “crossed boundaries acceptable to CBS and Paramount relating to copyright law.”

“Axanar and Mr. Peters have agreed to make substantial changes to Axanar to resolve this litigation, and have also assured the copyright holders that any future Star Trek fan-films produced by Axanar or Mr. Peters will be in accordance with the ‘Guidelines for Fan-Films’ distributed by CBS and Paramount in June 2016.”

The studios sued Axanar and Peters after they raised some $1.4 million in crowdfunding to not only produce a short known as Star Trek: Prelude to Axanar but a planned feature film called Star Trek: Axanar. The studios claimed Axanar and Peters used the money to seed a commercial studio outside of Los Angeles, and used the funds to pay Peters and others close to him salaries as well as cover a number of personal expenses.

The “guidelines” were issued last summer that gave fans assurances CBS and Paramount would likely not take legal action if followed. Those guidelines included limiting films to just 15 minutes, capping crowdfunding at $50,000, and not including cast and crew who had previously worked on Star Trek television series or movies.

John Van Citters, vice president of product development at CBS, later told a company-owned podcast that the guidelines are meant to be just that, guidelines. Violating them would not necessarily mean legal action, but fans who do not follow them would take that risk.

Yet, CBS and Paramount stopped short of taking a harder line on fan-films, similar to other media companies and major intellectual property they own. Any fan-film made outside of copyright’s “fair use” could be subject to lawsuits and damages. But the fan-film guidelines were designed to allow a small but vibrant fan community to continue their way of celebrating Star Trek, without continuing the so-called “arms race” that had hit some fan-films in recent years over who could raise the most money, or get the biggest Star Trek names involved.

“Paramount and CBS continue to be big believers in fan-fiction and fan creativity. They encourage amateur filmmakers to showcase their passion for Star Trek.

“Paramount and CBS will not object to, or take legal action against, Star Trek fan productions that are non-professional, amateur and otherwise meet the guidelines.”

The federal judge in the case, R. Gary Klausner, had recently ruled the Axanar projects were objectively substantially similar to intellectual property owned by Star Trek. He left only the question of if they were subjectively similar to a jury, who also would then find for damages if Axanar had lost the case. Klausner also ruled Axanar could not claim fair use, as it did not meet the criteria as set by laws and the courts.

It’s not clear how Axanar will continue from here. While the organization has maintained possession of studio space just outside Los Angeles, court records from CBS and Paramount suggest there is little to no money remaining from the $1.4 million. However, through the fan-film guidelines, Axanar could raise as much as $100,000 for two 15-minute episodes.

Both sides have been talking settlement since soon after the case was filed, but no agreement was reached.

Axanar hired Winston & Strawn to represent them on a pro bono basis, led by copyright attorney Erin Ranahan.

She in turn made a number of claims to combat the copyright claims, ranging from declaring the fan-films a parody to even questioning whether CBS and Paramount even owned the copyrights to Star Trek. All those arguments were rejected by the judge.

The trial had been scheduled to start Jan. 31 in Los Angeles.

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Michael Hinman

Michael Hinman

Managing Editor at GeekNation
Michael began what has become nearly 19 years of entertainment reporting as the founder of SyFy Portal, which would become Airlock Alpha after he sold the SyFy brand to NBC Universal. He's based out of New York City where he is the editor of a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper in the Bronx.
  • So, Mike, you planning of dusting off the “Lost: The Hurley Star Wars Script” you started working on back in May?

    • Dust off? It’s done! LOL!

      Why would I dust that off? This settled the way many of us expected it should have done a long time ago. Someone admitting they grossly violated copyright, would now play within the rules, etc.

      I would paraphrase another statement I hear on social media by saying “Big win for fans,” but ultimately, it’s going to take a long time for fandom to recover from this cluster.