Parties in Star Trek Fan Litigation Don’t Boldly Go Into the Unknown; Settle Claims

The Central District of California recently denied both parties’ motions for summary judgment in a copyright infringement case involving a fan Star Trek film, setting the dispute up for a jury trial. However, the Court’s findings that defendant Axanar Productions, Inc.’s film was objectively similar to Plaintiffs’ copyrighted Star Trek works, and that Defendants had no valid fair use defense, was sufficient to lead the parties to settlement.

Since 1966, Plaintiffs have produced six Star Trek television series totaling more than 700 episodes, and thirteen Star Trek motion pictures. Additionally, Plaintiffs have licensed numerous derivative works, including books, games, merchandise, and audio-visual works. These works incorporate stories taking place in time periods both before and after the original television series. Collectively, these works constitute the Star Trek canon, used by many Trekkers to create fan fiction. 

As avid Star Trek fans, Defendants intended to make a fan film about a character called Garth of Izar, who appeared in one episode of the original television series.  In that episode, Garth is a former starship captain, famous among Starfleet officers for his exploits in the Battle of Axanar with the Klingons twenty-one years earlier. The Defendants’ film was to depict Garth’s exploits. Defendants sought to make “a professional production” with a professional crew, “many of whom have worked on Star Trek itself.” Defendants raised money and produced a twenty-one minute film called “Star Trek: Prelude to Axanar” (“Prelude”) and released it on YouTube to raise funds for a full-length feature film. Defendants raised over a million dollars on crowdsourcing websites. Additionally, Defendants had completed a script for the motion picture, and filmed and released a scene (collectively, the “Axanar Works”). Plaintiffs sued, asserting copyright infringement, and both parties filed for summary judgment.

Defendants first argued that Garth and the alien species used—specifically Klingons and Vulcans—are not copyrightable. The Court disagreed, finding that the characters were sufficiently well developed and had both physical and conceptual qualities. Garth appeared as a live character (giving him physical qualities), and was a former starship captain famous for his battle exploits. He discussed his victory in the Battle of Axanar with Captain Kirk. A 2003 novel copyrighted by Paramount titled Garth of Izar further developed the character. Similarly, Klingons and Vulcans have distinctive physical and conceptual characteristics. Klingons have ridged foreheads, dark hair and skin, come from the planet Qo’noS, and are militaristic; Vulcans have pointed ears and upswept eyebrows, are advanced technologically, and suppress emotions in favor of logic and reason. Accordingly, these characteristics make Garth, Klingons, and Vulcans entitled to copyright protection.

The Court also found the combination of artistic elements in the Star Trek works were “numerous enough and their selection and arrangement original enough that their combination constitutes an original work of authorship.” The Court pointed to such distinctive elements of the Star Trek canon including costumes, settings, spaceships, plot points, the Klingon language, transporters, warp drives, the Vulcan council, the teachings of Vulcan philosopher Surak, and the Federation logo and stardate, all of which were incorporated into the Axanar Works. The Court further noted Defendants used dialog from Plaintiffs’ copyrighted works, including from a licensed game supplement titled Four Years War.

Second, the Court found that the Axanar Works were substantially similar to the Star Trek works because “Defendants expressly set out to create an authentic and independent Star Trek film that [stayed] true to the Star Trek canon down to excruciating details.” Defendants set the Axanar story in the Star Trek universe, used the Four Years War supplement “as a bible” in developing the script of Prelude, and intentionally used or referenced elements similar to those that appeared in the copyrighted works. The Court disagreed with Defendants that Garth was an obscure or lightly sketched character, citing the fact that he had: (1) been a featured character in one television episode; (2) been the title character of a novel; and (3) appeared in Four Years War.

Third, the Court rejected Defendants’ fair use defense, finding all four factors favored Plaintiffs.  According to the Court, the creativity of the Plaintiffs’ works and their status as published works entitled them to broad copyright protection. Further, the Axanar Works were not transformative, but rather deliberately stayed true to the Star Trek canon. They were commercial in nature because Defendants hoped to derive at least non-monetary benefits, such as other job opportunities and a viewership boost. Although quantifying the amount of the portion used in relation to the Plaintiffs’ works was difficult, the Court found “that elements of the Star Trek Copyrighted Works pervade the Axanar Works.” The elements used were also qualitatively important because they gave the Axanar Works the Star Trek look and feel and enabled Defendants to appear to be part of the Star Trek canon. Finally, the court found that Defendants’ proposed prequel is the kind of derivative work that Plaintiffs would develop or license others to develop.

Although the question of subjective substantial similarity was left to the jury, shortly after this decision issued, the parties settled the case. In a joint statement, Defendants agreed to make “substantial changes to Axanar” and assured “the copyright holders that any future Star Trek fan films produced by Axanar or Mr. Peters will be in accordance with the ‘Guidelines for Fan Films’ distributed by CBS and Paramount in June 2016.”

The case is Paramount Pictures Corp. v. Axanar Productions, Inc., Case No. 2:15-cv-09938-RGK-E (C.D. Cal.).

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