To boldly go where no nerds have gone before… In Paramount Pictures Corp. v. Axanar Productions, Inc. the U.S. District Court for Central California was presented with a case of fan fiction gone awry.
A small studio called Axanar Productions set out to produce a piece of Star Trek fan fiction centered around an obscure character named Garth of Izar. It was to be a feature-length film set as a prequel to the 1973 original series. In order to finance the production, the studio hosted a crowdsourcing campaign that was successful in raising $1.1 million.
The owners of the Star Trek franchise, CBS and Paramount, are keenly aware of the tendency for devotees to create so-called fan fiction—to the extent that they have an exhaustive list of rules for aspiring producers of said fiction. The rules themselves are reasonable, but one can easily see how Axanar’s proposed production violated them, namely:
- 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.
- 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.
Because Axanar Studios had violated the fan fiction guidelines, they found themselves subjected to a whole different set of rules: U.S. copyright law as interpreted by a federal court. CBS/Paramount’s claim alleged that Axanar was plainly infringing their copyright in Star Trek. Axanar, though, was undeterred and countered CBS/Paramount by asserting they were engaging in fair use—and that CBS/Paramount did not own “the idea” of Star Trek or the Star Trek universe.
The judge disagreed. He found it is not fair use to craft a side story based on a copyrighted character (even if an obscure one), and that other aspects of the proposed film were copyrightable. So, he denied both parties’ cross-motions for summary judgment. (That is, “A pox on both your houses.”) As often happens after this type of decision, the parties were inspired to reach a settlement. The defendants agreed to make substantial changes to the film and to follow the Star Trek fan fiction guidelines.
The moral of the story has two parts:
- If you’re making something for mass consumption or distribution, you’re likely to be found by the original owner.
- You should make sure that what you’re doing is acceptable or face the risk of being sued.
Only the defendant and its counsel know for sure how much of the $1.1 million budget was spent on attorneys’ fees — but the odds are that court costs had already gone into warp drive……
Mark S. Kaufman
Kaufman & Kahn
747 Third Avenue
New York, NY 10017
Tel. (212) 293-5556
Fax. (212) 355-5009