Star Trek Fan Film Sets Stage for Groundbreaking Legal Showdown

Star Trek fan film copyright infringementCopyright infringement has always been a difficult legal battle when it involves fan fiction. How do the courts determine “fair use” of intellectual property?

A new lawsuit brought on by CBS and Paramount Pictures against a Star Trek fan film may provide an answer—albeit, not one that fan-film creators want to hear.

Set to move ahead in proceedings

In December, 2015, the entertainment giants filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against the producer of “Axanar,” according to the Daily Dot. The creators reportedly drew their inspiration from a small, lesser-known backstory of an earlier episode in the series, and crowdfunded the money for production.

Whether it wasn’t meant to make a profit didn’t matter to the studios, which clung to the premise that the movie incorporated, “innumerable copyrighted elements of Star Trek, including its settings, characters, species, and themes,” Deadline reported.

The defendant, Alec Peters, had initially created a 21-minute trailer, and sought to produce a full-length feature film, according to Deadline. This was where the plaintiffs drew the line. Peters argued the case be dismissed due to the fact the film had yet to even be completed in its entirety, but U.S. District Court Judge R. Gary Klausner ruled the case will proceed to a jury trial. He pointed to the fact the film depends on a number of concepts that were copyrighted.

What this means moving forward

While nothing has been set in stone, this case does carry some implications for creators of fan-fiction films. The very fact that Federal Judge Klausner pushed the copyright infringement lawsuit to trial before it was even shot bodes poorly for productions in the same capacity moving forward.

There are varying interpretations of “fair use,” which make it such a difficult law to enforce. Artists who remix famous songs, for example, are often let alone and not brought to trial. But, the public has also seen cases like Robin Thicke and Pharrell, who had to pay a combined $7.3 million to Marvin Gaye’s family after a jury ruled against the defendants in the copyright infringement case, according to Rolling Stone magazine.

The legalese surrounding this law makes it difficult for many artists to judge where they stand in terms of the court’s decision. This makes highly skilled attorneys practicing in the entertainment industry incredibly valuable for defendants, as they can draw on years of decisions in an effort to clear their clients’ names.

CBS and Paramount initially asked for a complete hold on production in their lawsuit, but Deadline reported this wasn’t granted by the Judge Klausner, which could mean Peters has a sliver of hope, even though the case is going to trial.

Only time will tell what the courts decide, but the “Axanar” case will likely be seen as an example of what type of entertainment content will be brought to trial moving forward. It will also be interesting to learn about the methods Peters’ attorneys use to get his name cleared, and whether they work.

Are you a filmmaker unsure of the potential legal ramifications your fan film could create? Do you have any questions? Would you like to discuss the matter further? If so, please contact me, Anthony Caruso, at 201-806-3364.

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Anthony R. Caruso is a business transactional attorney in New York and New Jersey with experience in structuring, negotiation and completion of legal deals involving business, entrepreneurs, athletes and performers.

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