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The Star Trek Fan Film Controversy

Updated on June 24, 2016
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As any Star Trek fan knows, 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the original airing of the Star Trek television series. Current rights holders CBS and Paramount are commemorating the event with the release of a new feature film, Star Trek Beyond, and CBS has announced a new Star Trek television series that will premiere sometime next year over their online streaming service. Oh, and they've also decided to quash any fan involvement in the continued growth of the Trek universe.

Star Trek Beyond Trailer #2

Star Trek Teaser

For anyone who hasn't heard, several years ago a gentleman named Alec Peters began laying plans to create a Star Trek fan film, one made to the same standards and quality of a professional Hollywood production. His plan centered around the villain of an episode of the original Star Trek series, Garth of Izar. Captain Kirk refers to the man as a personal hero of his, and one of his inspirations for joining Starfleet, but the reasons for Garth's fame have never officially been expanded upon. Peters wanted to explore this previously unknown corner of the Trek universe. To that end he began a Kickstarter fundraiser and assembled a cast and crew. Last year, this fledgling studio, now called Axanar Productions, released on youTube a 20 minute video called "Prelude to Axanar", a faux-historical documentary detailing a conflict between the Federation and the Klingon Empire, and providing the exposition necessary for the full length film they were beginning work on.

Prelude to Axanar

Things seemed to be going well for the Axanar crew. And then, in December, CBS and Paramount slapped them with a Copyright infringement lawsuit, bringing everything to a grinding halt. After a lot of legal back and forth, including Justin Lin, director of the upcoming Beyond, coming out against the lawsuit, no less a figure than J.J. Abrams came out last month and said the lawsuit was a bad idea and would be dropped. It wasn't. Whether Abrams was misinformed, being disingenuous, or being deliberately misleading is more than I can say. And now CBS and Paramount have released some "guidelines" for future fan films, with the implied threat of lawsuits to keep fans in line. I'm not here to debate the legal ins and outs of copyright law; I'm not a lawyer, I don't know everything that's going on with regards to that front, and there are others on the internet who can and have done that aspect more justice than I could ever hope to. But as a lifelong fan of all things Star Trek, this lawsuit upsets me no end, and that's what I really want to discuss here.

CBS/ Paramount Fan Film Guidelines

CBS and Paramount Pictures are big believers in reasonable fan fiction and fan creativity, and, in particular, want amateur fan filmmakers to showcase their passion for Star Trek. Therefore, CBS and Paramount Pictures will not object to, or take legal action against, Star Trek fan productions that are non-professional and amateur and meet the following guidelines.

Guidelines for Avoiding Objections:

  1. The fan production must be less than 15 minutes for a single self-contained story, or no more than 2 segments, episodes or parts, not to exceed 30 minutes total, with no additional seasons, episodes, parts, sequels or remakes.

  2. The title of the fan production or any parts cannot include the name “Star Trek.” However, the title must contain a subtitle with the phrase: “A STAR TREK FAN PRODUCTION” in plain typeface. The fan production cannot use the term “official” in either its title or subtitle or in any marketing, promotions or social media for the fan production.

  3. The content in the fan production must be original, not reproductions, recreations or clips from any Star Trek production. If non-Star Trek third party content is used, all necessary permissions for any third party content should be obtained in writing.

  4. If the fan production uses commercially-available Star Trek uniforms, accessories, toys and props, these items must be official merchandise and not bootleg items or imitations of such commercially available products.

  5. The fan production must be a real “fan” production, i.e., creators, actors and all other participants must be amateurs, cannot be compensated for their services, and cannot be currently or previously employed on any Star Trek series, films, production of DVDs or with any of CBS or Paramount Pictures’ licensees.

  6. The fan production must be non-commercial:

  • CBS and Paramount Pictures do not object to limited fundraising for the creation of a fan production, whether 1 or 2 segments and consistent with these guidelines, so long as the total amount does not exceed $50,000, including all platform fees, and when the $50,000 goal is reached, all fundraising must cease.

  • The fan production must only be exhibited or distributed on a no-charge basis and/or shared via streaming services without generating revenue.

  • The fan production cannot be distributed in a physical format such as DVD or Blu-ray.

  • The fan production cannot be used to derive advertising revenue including, but not limited to, through for example, the use of pre or post-roll advertising, click-through advertising banners, that is associated with the fan production.

  • No unlicensed Star Trek-related or fan production-related merchandise or services can be offered for sale or given away as premiums, perks or rewards or in connection with the fan production fundraising.

  • The fan production cannot derive revenue by selling or licensing fan-created production sets, props or costumes.

7. The fan production must be family friendly and suitable for public presentation. Videos must not include profanity, nudity, obscenity, pornography, depictions of drugs, alcohol, tobacco, or any harmful or illegal activity, or any material that is offensive, fraudulent, defamatory, libelous, disparaging, sexually explicit, threatening, hateful, or any other inappropriate content

8.The content of the fan production cannot violate any individual’s right of privacy. The fan production must display the following disclaimer in the on-screen credits of the fan productions and on any marketing material including the fan production website or page hosting the fan production: “Star Trek and all related marks, logos and characters are solely owned by CBS Studios Inc. This fan production is not endorsed by, sponsored by, nor affiliated with CBS, Paramount Pictures, or any other Star Trek franchise, and is a non-commercial fan-made film intended for recreational use. No commercial exhibition or distribution is permitted. No alleged independent rights will be asserted against CBS or Paramount Pictures.”

9.Creators of fan productions must not seek to register their works, nor any elements of the works, under copyright or trademark law. Fan productions cannot create or imply any association or endorsement by CBS or Paramount Pictures.

CBS and Paramount Pictures reserve the right to revise, revoke and/or withdraw these guidelines at any time in their own discretion. These guidelines are not a license and do not constitute approval or authorization of any fan productions or a waiver of any rights that CBS or Paramount Pictures may have with respect to fan fiction created outside of these guidelines.

- See more at: http://www.startrek.com/fan-films#sthash.3epwYZvU.dpuf

What these guidelines read like to me, as a layman observer, is an attempt on the part of CBS and Paramount to stamp out any and all fan projects as perceived threats to the continued revenue stream of those companies. Star Trek fans have endured long breaks with little or no official Trek to satisfy their cravings. The original series lasted only three seasons, and fans had to wait a decade before Star Trek received its first film treatment. A further five films would be released over the subsequent decade, and in 1987 Star Trek retuned to television with The Next Generation. From then, Star Trek was on screen in one iteration or another until 2005 and the wrap of Star Trek Enterprise, including a further four feature films. Star Trek then went silent until 2009, when J.J. Abrams created his new take on Trek to mixed reviews.

The Wikipedia entry for Star Trek fan projects lists three other films aside from Axanar. Star Trek Horizon is a full length film that picks up where Star Trek Enterprise left off, covering the events of the Romulan War of Trek lore. A sequel had been planned, but the films creators announced that projects cancellation when CBS and Paramount brought the lawsuit against Axanar. Of Gods and Men was a three part mini-series that featured several Trek alumni among its cast. Renegades was a fan created pitch for a new TV show, which CBS turned down, again featuring Trek alumni. Wikipedia also lists 10 individual fan-made episodic shows, most taking place either at the same time as the original Star Trek series, continuing that series, or continuing the Trek story from the fourth Next Generation movie, Star Trek Nemesis. Five audio series are also listed.

Star Trek Horizon

While many of these other fan projects have suspended production while the Axanar production plays out, all of them violate one or more of the guidelines laid out by CBS and Paramount. This can only represent a draconian step on the part of these corporations to step on fan enthusiasm of the properties they own. I've seen quite a bit of ire from fans directed at the Axanar production team for bringing down the hammer, but this seems a bit like being upset at the canary in the coal mine when it dies, rather than recognizing the potential danger. Star Trek has always possessed a highly active and involved fan base, which should be evident from the campaign to keep the original series on the air after its cancellation in 1969. The fan base has been critical the success or failure of Trek shows and films in the past. But with the new "JJverse", CBS and Paramount seem to have stumbled upon a form of Trek that is more palatable to the public at large, as 2013's Star Trek Into Darkness was a financial success despite longtime fan outcry against the film.

So my impression from all of this is that CBS and Paramount are feeling very secure in their position atop the Trek pile at the moment, and are trying to ensure that no one and nothing can ever threaten their position. This ignores the fact that no fan film will ever represent an attempt to usurp their guiding position over the Trek universe, and that their position is entirely dependent upon said fans. Right now, they seem dead set on alienating as much of their fan base as possible, depending on fan love for the franchise to keep them coming back regardless of how badly said fans are being treated. I, for one, am seriously considering not spending money to watch the upcoming Star Trek Beyond in theaters, especially if it follows the trend of the last two films of being decent enough movies, but miserable Trek.

I Want to Know What You All Think!

Do you think CBS and Paramount are right to quash the Axanar fan production?

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Will you be going to see Star Trek Beyond when it opens in theaters?

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