Star Trek Attorneys Invoke Star Wars In Axanar Copyright Lawsuit

By December 7, 2016


You know the world is about to explode when a lawsuit focused on Star Trek brings up – gasp! – Star Wars.

rogue-one-score-mediumDavid Grossman, an attorney representing both CBS Studios and Paramount Pictures told a Los Angeles federal judge Monday that if fans were allowed to produce and distribute any Star Trek story they wanted, what would stop them from doing their own Star Wars prequel, like Rogue One, “so long as their ‘independent, professional film’ did not feature Luke Skywalker and Han Solo.”

The statement was part of court filings in the studios’ copyright infringement lawsuit against Axanar Productions and its principal Alec Peters, defendants both CBS and Paramount say went way too far in creating an “independent” fan-film called Star Trek: Axanar.

Both sides are trying to convince a judge to rule on at least parts of the case before it even goes to trial next month. While any type of summary judgment is unexpected, Grossman poked holes in Axanar’s defense that because Star Trek is so vast, using bits and pieces of it to create a new story in the same universe is “transformative,” and outside of the the copyrights owned by both CBS and Paramount.

“Boiled down to its essence, defendants claim in this case is that they are entitled to create a full-length film featuring copyrighted characters such as Klingons, Vulcans and Federation officers, along with Star Trek weapons, spaceships, settings and dialogue – so long as they do not include Capt. Kirk and Mr. Spock.

“This is not the law. Defendants’ theory would permit others, including competing studios, to create ‘professional’ ‘independent Star Trek films’ and television shows featuring all of these elements.”

sttng-inset120716In using an example a little more close to home, Grossman claims if copyright law was enforced the way Axanar says it should be, then anyone could’ve created a series like Star Trek: The Next Generation and claim it as their own, since it takes place in a different time period from the original Star Trek and features different characters outside of Kirk and Spock.

“If this were the law,” Grossman said, “the exclusive right to create derivative works … would no longer exist.”

Erin Ranahan, the attorney representing Axanar and Peters, told the court that because Star Trek: Axanar itself was never produced, the overall claims by CBS and Paramount are “premature” and could actually violate the First Amendment rights of Peters and his production company.

“It is black letter law that fair use has a substantial role in preserving free speech values in light of copyright law’s undeniable restrictions on speech rights.”

soval-inset120716Fair use, as Ranahan describes, is designed to allow limited free use of copyrighted work, generally for educational or journalistic purposes, but also in satire and other uses protected by free speech. Although Axanar has produced two shorts and teased what they called a “locked” script during fundraising efforts to bring in some $1.5 million, that’s not enough, in her opinion, to waste the court’s time.

On top of that, CBS and Paramount have no right to demand broad protection for its various alien races, like the Vulcans and the Klingons. In one Axanar short, actor Gary Graham reprises his role as Vulcan ambassador Soval from Star Trek: Enterprise, but even that shouldn’t be considered a violation of copyright, Ranahan said.

“Of course, plaintiffs have no rights to actor Gary Graham’s identity or features. Once that patently unprotectable element is filtered out, all plaintiffs are left with is an (unprotectable, unoriginal) bowl hairstyle, a pair of (unprotectable, unoriginal) pointed ears, the (ancient Roman) word ‘Vulcan,’ and the (Hindi) name ‘Soval.’

“None of these elements, alone or in combination, make ‘Vulcans’ protectable by copyright law.”

gaunt-inset120716In fact, Ranahan cited a specific case decided by summary judgment in 1999 known as Hogan v. DC Comics. In this case, writers Francis Hogan and Daniel Masucci sued DC Comics, saying its Dhampire series copied a proposed series they had submitted to the company called Matchsticks.

The main element the court considered at the time was the main character the two projects seemed to share – a half-human, half-vampire named Nicholas Gaunt. Yet that wasn’t enough for the judge to let the case go to trial, because outside of a hybrid creature with the same name, nothing else in his view was the same, according to Leagle.

Yet, CBS and Paramount say Axanar’s work goes far beyond the lifting of single so-called “minor” characters like Soval and Garth of Izar from the original Star Trek series.

“The Axanar works are not satire, commentary or parody, and by defendants’ own admission, were never meant to be anything other than a ‘professional’ and ‘independent’ Star Trek work.

“Further, Garth is only ‘minor’ when compared to 700 audiovisual works. He is a central, fully delineated character in a separately copyrighted television episode, and he is not required to appear in multiple episodes in order to be protected.”

Also, CBS and Paramount attorney Grossman pointed out that the judge in the case already addressed what Ranahan called “unprotectable” elements during her failed motions to dismiss last spring.

“Plaintiffs’ theory of infringement is not based solely on individual characters and elements, but also on the fact that defendants copied each of these elements and combined them together in such a way that recreates the Star Trek world.”

Axanar is asking the judge to close the case the same way that happened in the Nicholas Gaunt vampire action, with Axanar left off the hook for copyright infringement. CBS and Paramount, however, are seeking partial summary judgment, asking a judge to find that there is unlawful infringement, and to prevent Peters and Axanar from trying to do any future unauthorized Star Trek work.

axanar-inset120716However, if the judge were to side with CBS and Paramount, the trial would still get underway at the end of January – except it would be focused on how much damages Axanar and Peters would have to pay, not whether there was actual copyright infringement.

A hearing on the motions is set for Dec. 19. The judge could decide after that hearing whether he will grant any summary judgment, or could even make that ruling before the hearing.

CBS and Paramount sued Axanar and Peters in December 2015 after the fan production not only raised $1.5 million, but then used the bulk of that money to create what CBS and Paramount have called a for-profit studio just outside Los Angeles.

They are seeking actual damages, or statutory damages of up to $150,000 per violation.

h/t Jody Wheeler

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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.
  • 80sDude

    I’m failing to see any logic in the defense’s argument. Also, they claim it was meant to be a mockumentary, but, the director of the short said otherwise. Now, had Peters followed the advice of said director and just made up his own IP, he wouldn’t be in this mess. Then again, he also couldn’t have swindled all those people who helped fund him. I do not stand with Axanar.