A Federal court in Los Angeles is set to decide just how far the Star Trek universe’s copyright reach extends. In an interesting case that is being closely followed in the entertainment industry, Paramount Pictures Corporation v. Axanar Productions, Inc., studio giant Paramount and CBS Studios have alleged that a small independent film entitled Axanar infringes upon “thousands of copyrights” owned by Paramount and CBS to the various Star Trek movies and television shows, and that Axanar Productions is “using innumerable copyrighted elements of Star Trek, including its settings, characters, species, and themes.”
By way of background, there have been a total of six Star Trek television series, dating back to the original Gene Rodenberry produced Star Trek that originally aired on NBC from the mid-1960s. In addition, there have been twelve Star Trek motion pictures over the years. Some of these various shows have been set in different time periods (i.e., sequels and prequels), while others have been remakes of original character stories (i.e., reboots). Suffice to say, that among all of these various shows and movies, certain fictitious “worlds” have been created, as well as very specific characters inhabiting those works.
The film at issue isn’t a home hobbyist’s homage. It is a studio-quality film which has yet to be released but for which over $1 million has been raised via a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign. However, the producer of Axanar (backed up by a powerful law firm representing it) is not backing down. In a motion recently filed in the case, Axanar Productions has stated that Paramount and CBS have not been specific enough in terms of stating which specific copyrights are being infringed. The motion seeks to force Paramount and CBS to state specific ownership information about the copyrights to the Star Trek franchise as well as discuss the nuances of the multiple television series and the many films that have spawned from Captain James T. Kirk’s original five-year mission aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise.
Axanar’s Motion to Dismiss employs several arguments in favor of dismissal of the case. First, Axanar argues that the plaintiffs must show, with specificity, which copyrights are being infringed and how such copyrights are being infringed. Its argument is that the entire Star Trek universe cannot be lumped together as the basis for a lawsuit. Rather, specific copyrights for elements of the universe have to be spelled out in the Complaint. In making this point, the motion stated that the original 1960s TV series featured a certain adventure aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise, featured characters such as Captain Kirk, Dr. McCoy and Mr. Spock, and introduced the audience to the fictitious species of Vulcans and Klingons, whereas a later Star Trek series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, had new captain (Jean-Luc Picard) and explored different worlds (although many of the core premises of the original Star Trek series were incorporated into Star Trek: The Next Generation).
The defendants motion also describes how two further series, Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine introduced yet another set of new characters, plots, fictional worlds and settings. The various Star Trek films similarly have introduced such new elements.
While there are certain themes, elements and similarities that run through all of these (such that I would argue that ALL of these are derivative works of the original 1960s television series), Axanar’s motion attempts to force Paramount and CBS to be very specific as to where such elements originated. In other words, this argument by Axanar does NOT appear to claim that the studios do not own any copyrightable interests here. Axanar simply feels that it should not have to guess as to what the studios have allegedly that they have infringed, nor should they be required to sift through each movie and TV episode to determine the claims against them. The motion states: “Plaintiffs do not allege that Defendants are engaged in wholesale copying of each Star Trek motion picture and television episode, or even that Defendants lift substantial material from each of Plaintiffs’ alleged works….Plaintiffs’ conclusory allegations do little to put Defendants on adequate notice of the claims against them.”
Axanar has also argued that the plaintiffs must prove what copyrights are owned by whom. The “chain of ownership” to the Star Trek works is quite complicated. The original show on NBC was owned by Desilu Productions (which was owned by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz). Paramount acquired it from Desilu in the late 1960s. About twenty years later, Paramount was acquired by Viacom, which then merged with CBS, which subsequently separated from one another. As a result, there is a series of copyright registrations in various owners’ names, as well as numerous copyright assignments. All of this has to be sorted out in order to determine who is the owner of the specific copyrights at issue. As stated in the motion, “Which Plaintiff owns which alleged copyrights is critical to Defendants’ investigation into Plaintiffs’ claims, as it could be that the only works that Plaintiffs are actually alleging Defendants infringed are owned by one Plaintiff as opposed to the other….Plaintiffs’ joint ownership allegation is not plausible in light of the contradicting information in the Complaint regarding assignment, presenting another ground upon which dismissal is proper.” While these arguments may have merit procedurally, it might also be a clever stall tactic by Axanar.
Because the crowdfunded film hasn’t actually been made yet, Axanar also has argued that stopping its production would constitute an impermissible prior restraint on speech. Courts are highly reluctant to stop an infringement before it occurs, under the theory that relief can later be obtained through monetary relief and an injunction once the film has been completed. In other words, it is not appropriate to sue to stop a film before it has actually been made since the actual film may not, in point of fact, infringe upon anything.
Once all of this procedural jousting has been worked out, and assuming that the case is not dismissed, the burden will still be on Paramount and CBS to establish that elements protectable under copyright—expression and not mere ideas—have been infringed. Inasmuch as the crowdfunded film has not been completed, Paramount and CBS will have a difficult time showing that infringement has occurred (at least for now). Even assuming that the film were to be completed, the trier of fact in the case still will have to determine whether the themes, mood, setting, pace, plot and characters are substantially similar and that the similarities are not merely a result of similar ideas.
Following the production of the film, even if Paramount and CBS could show that copyrightable elements have been taken, Axanar still would have the ability to argue that its use of such elements in the context of this film constitutes “fair use” (which I have discussed in numerous posts on this blawg (Homage or Rip-Off?…, Let’s Go Crazy… and Fan Art: Tribute or Tribulation)). In the motion to dismiss, Axanar’s lawyers stated that: “Defendants intend to vigorously defend their use (if any) as a fair use. Without a film, the Court cannot evaluate the purpose and character of Defendants’ film, whether it is transformative, or a parody, and the amount and substantiality taken (if any). Similarly, the Court will not be able to evaluate any de minimis use defense.”
While some studios welcome (and even encourage) this type of “fan film” as a way to bolster and enhance the “franchise” of the product, the opposite approach is being taken in this situation. As a result, this case will be closely watched in the entertainment industry.