An interesting situation has developed with the proposed Star Trek ‘fan film’ Axanar which may highlight how we find ourselves in a transition period between two eras: the old era which relies on ‘Intellectual Property’ (IP), heavyweight corporate power and lawyers; against a new agile era based on crowdfunding and free access to information. explains the situation:

“For decades, Paramount and CBS have tolerated and even encouraged fans of the Star Trek franchise to use their imagination at will, but on Tuesday the entertainment companies went to their battle stations and launched a legal missile at a production company touting the first independent Star Trek film.

Axanar, the subject of a lawsuit filed on Friday in California federal court, is no ordinary Star Trek film. The forthcoming feature film (preceded by a short film) is the source of more than $1 million in crowdfunding on Kickstarter and Indiegogo. The producers, led by Alec Peters, aim to make a studio-quality film. As the pitch to investors put it, “While some may call it a ‘fan film’ as we are not licensed by CBS, Axanar has professionals working in front and behind the camera, with a fully-professional crew — many of whom have worked on Star Trek itself — who ensure Axanar will be the quality of Star Trek that all fans want to see.”

Paramount and CBS see a violation of their intellectual property.

“The Axanar Works infringe Plaintiffs’ works by using innumerable copyrighted elements of Star Trek, including its settings, characters, species, and themes,” states the complaint.

Axanar has become one of the biggest film projects in Kickstarter history and has been nearing warp speed with the reported help of Star Trek actor George Takei. The film mines subject area referenced in the late 1960s Gene Roddenberry television series and appears to be a prequel.”

As mentioned, CBS/Paramount has previously turned a blind eye to fan films using the Star Trek mythology as long as they do not make any profit either from the film itself or from related merchandise.

The current state of affairs was complicated enough anyway, with the rights to the franchise being split between two separate corporations, and as explained here:

“A major stumbling block: “Star Trek’s” licensing and merchandising rights are spread over two media conglomerates with competing goals. The rights to the original television series from the 1960s remained with CBS after it split off from Paramount’s corporate parent Viacom in 2006, while the studio retained the rights to the film series. CBS also held onto the ability to create future “Star Trek” TV shows.

Paramount must license the “Star Trek” characters from CBS Consumer Products for film merchandising.”

So Axanar is entering an already fairly complicated universe with its proposed new movie. What seems to have awoken the CBS/Paramount interest in this film is the large amount of money raised from the crowdfunding campaigns, plus the fact that they have their own new ‘official’ ST film coming out in 2016.

So one question is: can a production still be described as ‘amateur’ or ‘fan’ when it has a budget of over $1 million, and is paying industry professionals to make it, even when it has stated that the film itself is a non-profit operation?

Granted, a million dollars is nothing compared to what the next ‘official’ Star Trek film will cost, but this brings us to the crux of the thing here: the cost of making ‘professional quality’ films has dropped enormously in recent years due to the increase in power of cheap personal computers and ‘prosumer’ CGI software. Add to this the power of the internet to publicise and raise the money via crowdfunding, and this looks like a very much more equal fight than could have been imagined a decade or so ago. This is not so much one David versus Goliath as a million distributed young Davids against one ageing Goliath.

So what do the big studios have in their favour? If everything else is more or less equal, it basically boils down to two letters: IP. These two letters hold the key to enormous corporate and state power. CBS/Paramount holds the ‘intellectual property’ rights and therefore can force the upstart production out of existence using the power of the US courts which will surely back its bid to reassert its sole right to exploit its ‘property’: that is, the collection of ideas and characters originated by Gene Roddenberry in the 1960s which have been added to constantly since then and now make up the Star Trek mythological universe.

Therefore unless the producers of Axanar can come to some sort of agreement with the rights holders, that will be the end of the story. But should it be? Or should they soon be able to do whatever they want with these ideas? As notes:

“This whole mess would be largely avoided if the Star Trek intellectual property was in the public domain. They’d still probably be making bad Star Trek movies, it just wouldn’t be as offensive when there were other options. Big studios wouldn’t be the only game in town when it comes to characters and a universe that has been part of people’s lives for many years.

If the 1909 Copyright act was still in effect, Star Trek would be in the public domain after 56 years. The original series first aired in 1966, so by 2022 the basics of the original Star Trek universe free to anyone who might be able to do it justice. Under current law, it is in the hands of the current rights holders until at least 2061 and likely longer since copyrights get extended when Mickey Mouse gets close to the public domain due to Disney’s lobbyists.”

Corporate capture of the legislative powers pretty much everywhere in the world means that franchises such as Star Trek are pretty much never going to enter the public domain, at least while this seriously broken system of copyright exists. As always, corporations proclaim themselves staunchly in favour of a free market until they themselves enjoy a monopoly.

In contrast, it doesn’t appear that the majority of the ‘IP’ related to Sherlock Holmes being in the public domain (although naturally even that is complicated) has harmed efforts to produce successful films and television series using the iconic detective as their main character – what has harmed them, if anything, is them simply not being very good.

Given that hardcore Star Trek fans are apparently disenchanted with the recent CBS/Paramount films and are putting their money where their mouth is by backing the new Axanar project, it may be that the lawsuit is revealing a previously unexperienced level of concern over fan-backed competition to their franchise. Imagine the embarrassment if the crowdsourced film got more views on YouTube than the mainstream one did at the cinema, with maybe one two-hundredth of the budget. Also if Axanar goes ahead, we can’t discount that the infamous ‘Streisand Effect‘ will in effect be granting free publicity to the project from now on.

Overall it does look likely that the corporate behemoths will win this battle, although Alec Peters, producer of Axanar, sounds hopeful that some sort of agreement can be reached. This does however point to a new front in the overall war between those who believe that long-running mythologies such as Star Trek should be effectively ‘open sourced’ into the public domain and who now have the power to create ‘professional quality’ retellings of them, and those who believe that ‘Intellectual Property’ is sacred and – at least for now – have the backing of the state to enforce it.


Connect with the author on twitter @guyjames23

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