The following is an opinion piece marking a year since CBS Studios and Paramount Pictures Inc. sued Axanar Productions and its principal Alec Peters for copyright infringement after raising more than $1 million to make an “independent” Star Trek fan-film.
A year ago Thursday, the two companies that jointly own the rights to Star Trek did something they’ve never done before – they filed a lawsuit against a Star Trek fan-film.
Yes, I know, I should have been writing about this Thursday. But being a man, I’m genetically unable to remember birthdays and anniversaries. Yet, even one year and one day later, this lawsuit against what was supposed to be the fan-film feature Star Trek: Axanar still chugs along, with a trial scheduled in a little more than a month.
When CBS and Paramount first took action against Axanar Productions and its principal, Alec Peters, the initial reaction I saw from Star Trek fans was one of true disgust. Not on Axanar and Peters, but on CBS and Paramount for picking on its own fans. Just reading the headline on my Star Trek news site (written by my longtime colleague Bryant Griffin), I at first agreed. But then I read the story, and read the lawsuit, and my opinion changed.
It’s never a good policy for a company to sue its customers. That would be like me filing a lawsuit against you – I wouldn’t want to do that, first because you haven’t done anything wrong, and second, because I want you to come back and read more. So if some company does indeed file a lawsuit against members of its customer base, either that company is cray-cray, or there might be a very compelling reason to do it.
In the case of CBS Studios and Paramount Inc., they indeed had a compelling reason. Unlike any other fan-film before it, Axanar raised well over $1 million. That money was used to create what even Axanar described as a “professional” venture, complete with a permanent studio, and giving its executive producer – Alec Peters himself – a paycheck and an expense account.
If that sounds perfectly American, let me ask you something. How many hobbies are you doing that someone pays you for it? Some might look at me and say, “Well, aren’t you being paid to do a hobby?” Except journalism is not a hobby for me. It’s been my career my entire adult life, and even part of my teenage years. Maybe it was a hobby when I was writing stories for free for my local weekly newspaper when I was 16, but when a daily newspaper in my town starting paying me for stories when I turned 17 – that hobby was over.
While fan-films might be used by some as stepping stones into the industry, fan-films themselves are meant to be nothing more than hobbies. And once it transcends from hobby to commercial venture – you better hope the intellectual property you’re dealing with belongs to you. Otherwise, the owner might be upset.
Probably the best way I’ve described this case to people is let’s say you love to whittle wood, and you whittled the entire primary cast of Star Wars and put it on top of your fireplace.
That’s great. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it.
I come by your house and see that, and I’m like, “I love that! I wish I had it!” So for my birthday, you whittle a second set and give it to me. Still, you’re perfectly fine.
But let’s say I come back and tell you that I would’ve paid $500 for the set, and I bet others would too. So here’s some wood, let’s make some money – that’s when it goes from being a hobby that no one will bug you about, to a business that Lucasfilm might take issue with.
Not only was Axanar making the wood figurines commercially, but they were asking fans in the name of the intellectual property they don’t own to buy the shop to make them in. And that simply isn’t right.
When the lawsuit was filed, I expected it all to last just a matter of weeks. Usually, these kinds of cases do. But not Axanar. To their credit, they decided to fight.
The problem was … they brought a butter knife to a nuclear war. And the law just isn’t on their side.
Even worse, they had the entire year to make this film they claimed they were just weeks away from making, but it never happened. Instead, they spent nearly $200,000 just on rent for their studio, and other money on who knows what, and now there’s nothing left.
Axanar claims the lawsuit stopped them from making their film. But nothing in the lawsuit did that. CBS and Paramount didn’t even ask for an injunction against Axanar.
Now we’re waiting for the judge in the case to decide whether to end part or all of the case through the summary judgment process. Here, both sides are arguing the evidence is in their favor to find the case in their favor. A decision could come literally any minute. Maybe even as you’re reading this.
Who knows. It’s all up to the judge.
One thing has been decided already, however. The world of fan-films have changed, and not for the better. For the first time ever, CBS and Paramount have released what they call “guidelines” that would keep a fan-film from potentially getting a call from lawyers. That includes limiting fundraising to $50,000, and films themselves to just 15 minutes.
Those guidelines essentially spell the end for productions that were continuing the original five-year mission of Star Trek in full episodes, or even the feature films with visual effects that rival many actual independent productions.
Axanar will not change copyright law, at least not the way it hopes. And it certainly hasn’t helped the fan-film community.
The sooner we can say good-bye to this nightmare, the sooner we can get back to being just fans again.
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