Star Trek Lawsuit Opens Intellectual Property Debate

Star Trek Lawsuit Opens Intellectual Property Debate

No matter how optimistic creator Gene Roddenberry was when the first episode of Star Trek aired in 1966, he and everyone else involved couldn’t possibly have imagined the incredible success the franchise has had decades hence.

And when something is this popular, copyright battles are very likely to follow. However a recent lawsuit against a Star Trek fan film entitled Axanar may be an example of how intellectual property holders must be careful when dealing with fans.

The case has finally settled apparently to the satisfaction of both CBS and Paramount Studios and Axanar Productions, the fan group responsible for the film. The decision comes shortly before the planned launch of a new Start Trek Discovery series later this year on CBS All Access.

In January, a 15 page ruling by US District Court Judge R. Gary Klausner essentially said the Star Trek fan film isn’t protected by fair use, a exception in copyright law which allows for use of someone else’s intellectual property mostly for commentary.

Instead of going ahead with the litigation, CBS (NYSE:CBS) and Paramount Studios, which own the copyright, decided to settle the suit with Axanar Productions and Alec Peters, the main creative force behind the production.

As part of the settlement, Axanar Productions and Peters acknowledge that the fan film and a promotional short Prelude to Axanar:

“Were not approved by Paramount or CBS, and that both works crossed boundaries acceptable to CBS and Paramount relating to copyright law.”

To be fair, CBS and Paramount Pictures have a pretty liberal policy for reasonable fan fiction and fan creativity. It allows amateur fan filmmakers to showcase their talent for productions that are non-professional, amateur and meet the guidelines it has in place. However, the Axanar project went well beyond these guidelines using professional actors from the original franchise and professional quality affects and production.

The case is a good lesson for content producers large and small who must weigh the importance of protecting their brand and intellectual property against the need to treat fans and customers with respect. The settlement will allow the Axanar group to produce two additional shorter films and additional related content.

At the same time, it  is careful not to mistreat enthusiastic fans who will doubtless make up the majority of the customer based for the new series and other content in the franchise yet to be developed.

There are times when you should use restraint, just as CBS and Paramount did in this case, because the alternative would have hurt the brand and fan base, who strongly supported the Axanar film.

Star Trek Cast Photo via Shutterstock 11 Comments ▼

Michael Guta Michael Guta is the Assistant Editor at Small Business Trends and currently manages its East African editorial team. Michael brings with him many years of content experience in the digital ecosystem covering a wide range of industries. He holds a B.S. in Information Communication Technology, with an emphasis in Technology Management.

11 Reactions
  1. It’s an interesting decision, one that indeed all brands show pay attention. Years ago Ferrari got into a similar suit over a fan’s Facebook page which Ferrari took ownership yet allowed the fan to run. What was disconcerning was that their customers really did not come from Facebook, so it was a wasted moment and exposure to the public when it did not have to do so.

  2. Axanar Productions was in the wrong. But, so was CBS/Paramount. In a case such as this CBS/Para should’ve had some good faith meetings (which they may have had for all I know) with Axanar Productions to:

    1. Have Axanar Productions to cease or modify the project as to not infringe on CBS/Para’s Star Trek IP.


    2. Hammer out a deal where Axanar goes forward and CBS/Para takes some control, has a stake, in the project so it can be distributed by the CBS as a TV movie or direct to video release.

    Instead we get litigation and the fan community gets slapped with overly draconian rules as to what’s acceptable in fan films.

    Perhaps if Axanar was not set at around the same time as ST:Discovery (10 years prior to Kirk’s Enterprise) and the donations weren’t going to fund the start up of an independent studio, that would be used for other commercial projects after Axanar was completed.

    Axanar *might* have not been singled out from some of the other higher quality Star Trek fan productions.

    • Axanar was singled out because Alec Peters took something that was tolerated as long as it was only a hobby (fan films) and tried to turn it into a business. The other productions have actually produced what they said they were going to, and on much less money. Wake up.

  3. I know I’m not a lawyer, I have no knowledge of copyright law other than don’t use someone else’s property for profit. This is the key: PROFIT. From what I know, Axanar was not being made for any type of release to theaters for any type of profit or income. Rather it was being made strictly by fans for the fun of it, but, they made the film “too” good with special effects that rivalled professional productions but again, no planned profit or no ticket prices. CBS and Paramount became too possessive when they saw how good Axanar was in the end.. Shame on them. Yes, shame on them. And congrats to Alec Peters for all his efforts from a fan’s point of view. I truly would have enjoyed a full movie.

    • Incorrect. Axanar Productions and Alec Peters were profiting and gaining from the Star Trek brand in various ways, some in a despicable fashion.

    • @Bob Hart While I would recommend looking up the plethora of online media coverage of this lawsuit (my response might be riddled with inaccuracies), from what I’ve gathered there is far more to the story. The reason this project seems to have been singled out is more about the fact that he WAS using the project for profit, even if in a more cunning way. It was funded by fan donations (*in Trump voice* “Lots of money… HUGE”) which largely went to buy assets that, though yes he might use for this project, he would use to start his own studio. So basically, instead of making a GoFundMe type thing, he basically did it utilizing the popularity of the Star Trek name to ensure he got investors. There are plenty examples of ST fan films that used actors from the actual shows in the past, had amazing effects, & even great stories (I’m looking at you, Star Trek Continues) without stepping on the studio’s toes, but this one went over the line of profiting off the Star Trek name.

    • Axanar wasn’t sued because of any quality issue, it was because some wannabe guy named Alec Peters was attempting to use Star Trek and there fans as a stepping stone to create a film studio and advance his dream of becoming a film producer ..

  4. This article failed to mention that the force behind Axanar was profiting financially.

    Not only were they selling products based on the Star Trek IP to raise money, the lead many to believe that their organization was a 501c3 non profit corporation. (They never have been).

    Not only that, but the Man behind Axanar admittedly paid himself a salary, and pubically defended this salary. It is now claimed he did not pay himself, but was refunding donations he made to his own project (from the donations of Star Trek fans). There is much more to this story. CBS and Paramount are NOT the bad guys here!

  5. It is sad that this happened but should show how much we fans love Star Trek. Something should be in the works at all times so when one thing ends, another starts. Discovery is coming out soon, but how long has it been between Enterprise?

  6. Most of the fans did not support Axanar. Truly, most Trek fans have never heard of fan films, let alone Axanar. It was a tiny percentage of a percentage. Furthermore, it’s less likely that plaintiffs initiated settlement; it’s more likely that Axanar did, given that their financials were about to be released.

    Also, they are permitted (under the Guidelines) to make two 15 minute films. Period – no ‘other content’. That constitutes, to use the colloquialism, ‘poking the bear’. So we shall see if the grandiose plans for, among other things, novels (unlicensed) will ever come to fruition. I imagine Pocket Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, which has the license to release Star Trek tie-in novels, will have a lot to say if Axanar attempts to publish and sell any books.

    It’s interesting that you’re linking to their PR site. Their actual site has a different web address. You might also want to look at the comments sections for their Kickstarter and IndieGoGo crowdfunding campaigns. There are donors who are losing their patience, and want refunds.

    There is more to this story than just an intellectual property dispute.

  7. Most of the commenters on this article are missing many facts; especially those that claim “profit” occurring. The studio was the decision versus renting because it would use less–until the lawsuit came along–than renting a studio. The stated goal after Axanar was to rent–for coverage of the studio rental costs only–the studio to others looking to produce fan-based productions (the belief was that the majority would likely be to other Star Trek fan-based productions). Another purpose that was considered for the studio after Axanar was completed was to allow film students use the studio for their projects. Both of these ideas are still things that the studio wants to do; and again for only the costs associated with rental that the studio must pay to remain open and available for these projects. For profit use is not the purpose associated with either of these goals. Should other non fan-based projects eventually come looking to use the studio, then their monies would be used to build out more studio related items.

    The actors in Prelude to Axanar; the 20 minute short used to promote the Kickstarter and Indiegogo campaigns; were paid “scale” for their parts. All but one of the actors that had previously appeared in a Star Trek made CBS show were, and are to appear in the now two 15 minute “segments” (and would have been in the full-length fan-based feature), are not playing roles that they played in the Star Trek series.

    Some of the technical (behind the scenes) people were paid a token amount (up to scale) for their help in making Prelude to Axanar. This did not include the SFx people, and many many others that volunteered their time.

    Those that came in to create–though now not completed as any/all production stop when the suit was filed–the set and make the warehouse rented capable of hosting a film studio were (and will be again) volunteers. People with a high enthusiasm for Star Trek. Alec Peters being one of those that volunteered; in fact he has used a large mount of personal funds to “keep the lights” on over the year of the suit.

    About the suit: Alec did make contact with CBS about making Prelude (to Axanar), and Axanar, before going too far down the donour road and starting the process of making Axanar. He did not get any response one way or the other. There was no statement that said “Cease and Desist” or be sued. Axanar itself had not be started–the script was still “in flux” though mostly minor changes were still being made at the time the suit was filed. The suit was filed two days prior to Christmas and Alec and the team at Axanar found out not through official CBS/Paramount but through an industry newspaper/magazine.

    Immediately upon notification Axanar stopped anything associated with the production. Alec then sought legal counsel at which point a law firm made contact and indicated they would assist pro-bono.

    About 6 months AFTER things reached this point CBS/Paramount created their guidelines for fan-based productions. I say again, these guidelines came into being AFTER about 6 months AFTER the suit was filed. Prior to that there were no guidelines and no guide of what could and could not be done had been offered to Alec and the Axanar team even though there were occasions where they were informally asked.

    There was never a Cease And Desist (C&D) order–a standard practice before proceeding to submit a suit. The suit only occurring after the a C&D is ignored. Since there was no C&D there was nothing to ignore. CBS and Paramount jumped right to filing a suit.

    The suit lasted just over a year, almost a year and a quarter actually. This delay in making Axanar lead to the coffers running dry and Alec using thousands and thousands of personal money to keep the studio, etc., rented for a feature fan-film now stuck in limbo. The suit was on the verge of going to trial, and after the court decided that a fair use defense was not acceptable–something unexpected by the Axanar team, but welcomed by CBS/Paramount as with this defense no longer possible much of defense was being denied submission.

    During this same time period there was constant in-the-background negotiations between Alec and studios. The full details of the resultant agreement reached are not contained in the ruling. Some of the facts of the settlement have been sanctioned from being released by either party.

    However, what can be said is that Axanar/Alec agreed to adopt, now and should any other project be considered by Alec in the future, the guidelines that came into effect after the suit.

    Some speculate that the suit was brought because of the money raised for Axanar, others because of the (again well after the suit) announcement by CBS of Star Trek: Discovery (ST:D). True ST:D is set at about the same time as Axanar–in the gap between Enterprise and the original series–but this is just that, conjecture. We will never know for certain what triggered the suit. We can only speculate.

    What we know is that Axanar will now be two 15-minute segments instead of the planned 90-120 minutes. We know that the studio was designed to be not-for-proft; this being signified by the submission for a 501(c) designation–again this happened, and was a decision that the donours knew about, well before the filing of the suit. We know that because of the 1 1/4 delay the continued rental of the space that is the studio has cost money that was to be for the production and several thousands of additional funds from Alec himself. Everything else is pure speculation and only severs to fuel a fire between Axanar donours and other Star Trek fans; some who don’t know all the facts because they are not donours, and others because they have a personal grudge against Alec for reasons really only they know.

    The “drama” is now over and the donours are looking forward to what Alec and Axanar can provide with the restrictions that were placed upon it by CBS/Paramount.