Here’s the deal.
A bunch of artists got together and decided to make a movie. All good.
The producers are big fans of Star Trek, as is the director who helped bring us the cult-embraced love letter to Trek (and Swingers), Free Enterprise. Great.
They decided to make a Star Trek movie. Ambitious.
CBS and Paramount Pictures own the whole of the Star Trek universe. Of course.
The artists, calling themselves Axanar Productions, went ahead to make the movie without their permission.
Herein lives the problem at the heart of a long, dreary lawsuit.
As much as I’d like to write a measured, thoughtful response to the latest legal efforts of the Axanar lawsuit, it just comes down to the same small but important points I’ve made in the past.
- The “fan” group raised over a million dollars.
- The “fan” group is hiring professional artists, actors, and craftspeople to produce a “professional-looking” film.
- The production team have many awards between them for professional achievements and impressive IMDB.com pages for their work on many Hollywood productions. These are not community theater actors or dentists by trade. These are working professionals who also happen to be… fans.
- The film is based on intellectual property owned by CBS/Paramount.
- It stands to reason that money was raised from fans of Star Trek who would not have otherwise donated to a generic science fiction story, even with a “Prelude” offering to demonstrate the quality of the production.
- The “fan” group failed to come to a formal agreement with the IP owner regarding “fair use” and the scope of the Axanar project before embarking on fund-raising and production.
- The “fan” group used funds raised to pay for office space, salaries, contracts, equipment, and to create an infrastructure that will profit individuals associated with the production all based on the Star Trek brand. They will benefit either financially or artistically based primarily on the appropriation of the Star Trek brand.
- The infrastructure, including equipment, computers, software, and the physical branding associated with the production company represent “profit” based on money raised to produce a Star Trek film.
- Axanar is not presented as a parody, satire, or “mockumentary” in any of its marketing or fund-raising material (that I have seen). Therefore, that statement is either not true or a misrepresentation of the material to its investors.
- These are facts I’ve gathered from various reports and will happily revise my assessment upon presentation to the contrary.
While Trek has been around for over fifty years and saturates popular culture, it is no different than any other corporate-owned property. If you didn’t invent Captain Kirk or the Enterprise or the Federation, they don’t belong to you. While I know that this is a different era with different ships, characters, and situations, those situations are anchored in dialogue and characters created by other writers on someone else’s television show. It is the connection that made raising so much money possible and its use of the brand that promises a wider distribution of the final product than any generic science fiction film production.
Axanar further claims that it is not the first nor the last fan production and that CBS/Paramount has allowed fanfiction and fan productions to exist for most of its 50 years of existing. This is true. However, it is also true that only a small percentage of fan-produced material call themselves “professional” filmmakers. A smaller percentage can claim to have raised more than most first-time filmmakers have raised for their own original productions. Even smaller than that would be fan productions casting original Star Trek actors and employing special effects that would make their productions virtually indistinguishable from a typical episode of a Star Trek television show.
This logic, forwarded by the Axanar team, makes it appropriate for anyone to take your music, your books, your comics, your art, or any intellectual property and create a small business based on that work and call it a “fan” production protected by fair use. As such, future property thieves will not have to compensate you for use of property or give you power over how your characters and situations are represented.
Is that fair? I submit it is not and we should not judge the appropriateness of this action by the fact that Trek is a ubiquitous presence in American popular culture.
As much as I want to support tributes and fan participation in the creative process, there has to be a line drawn that protects both legitimate fans who want to express their fandom artistically and professionals who want to advance their careers and resources by pretending to be something they are not. I have no doubt that the production team and creators of Axanar are fans, but there comes a time when you have to embrace the responsibility and privilege of professional status. You cannot claim one status and practice another.
In addition, AS fans, the cast and crew of Axanar have a responsibility to other groups and organizations who have been producing their own work without issue. As a result of this legal action, CBS and Paramount have chosen to release a list of fan-production standards that they feel protects their property and brand. Those terms may have a widespread impact on those artists and groups that once operated freely.
Part of that responsibility is honoring the intellectual property of other filmmakers and performing the professional diligence of securing rights to properties they seek to use in their own productions.
At this point, the funds were raised and are being spent. The resolution is in the hands of the attorneys. I hope the outcome doesn’t ruin any lives. I also hope that the court renders a fair verdict that goes to protect not only the corporate ownership of intellectual property but protects all artists from having their works adapted under the thin disguise of “fandom.”