Star Trek's Ground Zero Copyright Battle

Screen Shot 2015-12-31 at 11.15.02 AMNews today that Paramount and CBS — the owners of Star Trek — are suing the makers of Axanar, an independent Star Trek film. This is no ordinary fan film. Instead, it is a productiont that has received more than $1 million in crowdfunding. Moreover, it is not intended for commercial release. It will be freely available. Finally, it looks impressive, most impressive. To see that you can watch this 21 minute preview.

 So what is Paramount and CBS’s problem? According to them:

Star Trek is a treasured franchise in which CBS and Paramount continue to produce new original content for its large universe of fans. The producers of Axanar are making a Star Trek picture they describe themselves as a fully professional independent Star Trek film. Their activity clearly violates our Star Trek copyrights, which, of course, we will continue to vigorously protect.

All this is likely the case. But at the same time, one wonders why CBS and Paramount are doing this. To be clear, they want an injunction to prevent this movie — that is drastic action.

The first reason is that it may undermine CBS’s own new Star Trek series that will launch in a year’s time. But that seems unlikely. Whatever, Azanar is, it isn’t canon or official in any capacity. Yes, it is a serious endeavour but it is not clear why that would harm CBS’s own venture. One possibility is that it covers similar ground but again one would think that official would trump unofficial here and so the potential harm is hard to parse.

A second reason is that they think this might reduce Star Trek revenues into the future. Again, is there too much Star Trek around that this competition may cause problems? It seems unlikely.

A third reason is that they think that this venture has great commercial potential and would like to find a way to covert it into that. This is harder to dismiss but it suggests that an injunction is not the end game here.

Finally, I do wonder if this is a battle designed to hide a potential conceit behind some enforcement of copyright. We all know that straight out imitation is an easy case and justifies protection. But this is not imitation but something more likely interpretation. To be clear, this movie relies on intellectual creations that exist in Star Trek. Moreover, it could not exist without them. Changing names, etc, would be a problem. The movie requires the ‘Star Trek’ universe.

But with copyright comes the notion that the rights holder knows best and only the rights holder has the incentive to marshall resources to do something that is of high quality. But what if a fan film with limited funding and a non-commercial purpose can, without that protection or incentive, produce something of high quality? Why then do we have strong copyright protection that extends into follow-on or derivative work? There is a possibility here that Paramount and CBS do not want to find out the answer to that question.

[On the same score, consider the Star Wars issues. George Lucas gave an interview to Charlie Rose where he lamented what has become of his creation. There are some of us who believe that that is the point.]

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