When it comes to geek culture, passion is what drives the industry. Sure, making money is ultimately the bottom line, as it is in every other industry, but those dollars come from passionate fan bases that are invested in shows and films and books that they love. One need only look at the recent success of The Force Awakens to see that passion on display. It is that investment that has allowed many of these franchises to maintain such a long life. The first Star Wars movie came out in 1977. Doctor Who has been on and off the air for over half a century. And Star Trek is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year, a show that has become synonymous with zealous fans. But the studio behind Star Trek is less than thrilled with fan-made projects springing forth from that zeal.
Axanar Productions is being sued by Paramount and CBS, the rights holders for the Star Trek property, over plans to create a unauthorized prequel film. The film, entitled Axanar, is set years before the events of the original television series, with story details that would hold interest only to the most ardent of Star Trek fans. More that the plot particulars, the movie represents the appetite of Star Trek fans for new stories, and their willingness to work outside of the studio system to make them. Axanar was able to crowdfund over $1,000,000 to get the project started, but it seems that success drew the watchful eyes of CBS and Paramount.
In an interview with The Wrap prior to the suit, the film's executive producer Alec Peters stated that he had met with CBS regarding the project, but that the studio didn't give him any guidelines about what they could or could not do, save for stating that the film couldn't make money. Peters also claims that the project will limit the use of Star Trek intellectual property in the film, instead using original costumes and set designs.
But relying on the good graces and tacit agreement of a major studio can be a dangerous proposition. Indeed, The Wrap article goes on to quote attorney Lincoln Bandlow, who proves to be prescient in saying that “If you have permission from a copyright holder to do a fan-made film, there’s no problem. But it’s real risky to be relying on an alleged oral licensing agreement to do such a work." Bandlow also goes on to say that simply not making money on the project isn't any insurance against a suit, and that “(j)ust because there are a lot of these fan versions being done doesn’t make it legal.” A CBS statement provided to The Wrap further indicates that the studio hadn't authorized or sanctioned the film, and that they were considering further action — action that turned out to be a lawsuit.
In the suit, the studios are seeking an injunction against Axanar as well as damages for the copyright infringement. The suit notes that Axanar is intended to have the look and feel of a Star Trek film and points to the characters and elements that are used from the Star Trek universe. And while this particular case may seem to be a fairly straight-forward example of infringement, it will be interesting to see the ramifications it may have on future fan-made Trek projects; a CBS/Paramount victory in court may be Pyrrhic if it means alienating legions of devoted fans.