The Legal Dispute Dividing The Fans – And The Infinite Interpretations of One Lawsuit

In Axanar, Editorial

It was December 29 2015, four days after Christmas… people around the world were slowly recovering from their eating binges and merry times with families and for us Commonwealth subjects in Australia, the Boxing Day sales were well underway… encouraging us to spend our gift cards in store.

For a group of fans it was to become the beginning of a very difficult path as CBS and Paramount Pictures (CBS/P) joined forces to issue a lawsuit to Alec Peters and Axanar Productions Inc (Axanar.) The trouble, they said, was that Axanar does “infringe Plaintiffs’ works by using innumerable copyrighted elements of Star Trek, including it’s settings, characters, species and themes.”

Murmurings on the internet began very quickly with many supporters of Axanar and even general Trekkies proclaiming their disdain for CBS/P’s actions in this matter, Star Trek, they said, belonged to the fans. Two sides quickly emerged over the following month with yet others commenting on how Axanar has destroyed the future of Trek fan films.

On February 22 Axanar, via Erin Ranahan working for them pro bono from legal firm Winston & Strawn, issued a reply in a 29-page document taking aim at alleged ambiguities in the initial lawsuit and requested the entire case be dismissed. Furthermore, Axanar’s response questioned the ownership of certain rights,

Which Plaintiff owns which alleged copyrights is critical to Defendants’ investigation into Plaintiffs’ claims, as it could be that the only works that Plaintiffs are actually alleging Defendants infringed are owned by one Plaintiff as opposed to the other.

When the modern CBS was formed following the Viacom split in 2006, CBS received the television rights and Paramount obtained the theatrical rights. Axanar also responded to CBS/P’s claim that the feature film was in breach of copyright by noting that production had not yet begun.

CBS/P fired back three weeks later with their attorney’s at Loeb & Loeb compiling a forty five plus page document outlining exactly how Axanar had breached the Star Trek copyright.

CBS owns United States copyrights in the Star Trek television series, and Paramount owns the United States copyrights in the Star Trek motion pictures.

Supporters of Axanar have latched onto this amended lawsuit with many scoffs and cries of unfair treatment while the detractors of the production continue to assert that Alec has gone too far, he was never seeking to produce a fan film but an independent production with the desire of a very commercial outcome they say, something Alec and spokesman Mike Bawden reject.

Another component of the amended lawsuit that’s captivated many people are the specific details cited by CBS/P, things like pointed ears, use of prosthetics, makeup and costumes which many claim to assert cannot be copyrighted. However what these people seem to be missing is the fact that the lawsuit doesn’t state these items individually but rather as distinguishing features of the aliens.

So pointed ears are fine, but put them on an actor portraying a character who’s controlled their emotions and is a member of a species you happen to call ‘Vulcan’ and you’ve got yourself a problem. Put some ridges on an actor’s forehead and script their character as aggressive and warrior-like… and then call them ‘Klingons’ and you’ve got a problem. It doesn’t help that Alec cast Gary Graham as Ambassador Soval, clearly mentioned as one of the infringing elements in the case.

It must be said that during all of this, no other fan production has been targeted by CBS/P, Star Trek: Horizon was released during this time receiving no public comment and Star Trek: Continues is currently seeking $350,000 to produce three more episodes. While there’s no guarantee other fan productions won’t be targeted, CBS/P are setting a very defined example as they continue to attack Axanar.

To those with no interest in Star Trek, the path this case has taken must surely reaffirm their belief of what we fans get up to – pouring over every microscopic detail and arguing amongst ourselves. But that isn’t the case, this legal action has placed every fan’s passion into serious jeopardy – anyone who has produced a fan film, fan episode, fan fiction or fan site, including this one, could potentially be affected.

One thing I have noticed in all of the media coverage is that there’s no analysis of what impact this case will have on international fan works, including, therefore my goal moving forward will be to analyse this case with the assistance of my legal counsel.

Editor’s Note:
I’ve been talking with Alec Peters since the fourth of January 2016 and Mike Bawden, PR for Axanar, since the fourth of February 2016. Following in excess of two months of emails they have rejected all requests for an interview – most recently this morning Australian time.

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