It has been one heck of a rollercoaster ride for those of us watching the ups and downs of the lawsuit filed by Paramount and CBS against Star Trek fan film Axanar. The huge amount of new information and new (or amended) court filings peppered with celebrity commentary has left a lot of the fans wondering – what’s the deal with the Axanar lawsuit anyways, and how should I feel about it? AxaMonitor.com’s Carlos Pedraza catches us up on the latest facts in the Axanar saga, including where the suit currently stands legally, a move by Peters to sell Ares Studios, plus the latest reactions from Star Trek Beyond director Justin Lin and TNG’s Wil Wheaton.
The past week brought an amended lawsuit expanding copyright allegations against the embattled Star Trek fan film, Axanar, while celebrities began to weigh in, and a secret group of private investors offered to buy the production’s new studio.
In the beginning…
On December 29th, 2015 Paramount Pictures Corp. and CBS Studios Inc. collectively filed suit against the successful fan film group, Axanar Productions and its owner Alec Peters plus up to 20 unnamed “Does”. You can read the official document here. In short, Paramount and CBS allege that Axanar has infringed upon their copyright of Star Trek and asked for the statutory $150K in damages for each work infringed upon (this would include characters, locations, etc.).
Axanar pushes back
Axanar and Peters, represented on a pro bono basis by the high-powered Winston & Strawn, responded to the lawsuit by filing a Motion to Dismiss, asking the court to completely dismiss the suit on the grounds that Paramount and CBS were not specific enough in their original complaint as to what elements were infringed upon, saying in the motion “…while Plaintiffs allege ownership of “thousands” of copyrights relating to Star Trek episodes and films, Plaintiffs fail to specify which of those copyrights Defendants have allegedly infringed.”
The new amended complaint from CBS and Paramount
In response to Axanar’s Motion to Dismiss, Plaintiffs CBS and Paramount Pictures filed a 48-page amended complaint, 28 of which presented detailed copyright violations. The defendants have until March 31 to respond to the new complaint.
EXTRA AxaMonitor offers a backgrounder on copyright infringement.
Celebrities take sides
The detailed copyright violations got national headlines — a public relations win for the plaintiffs — until the studios’ copyright claim for the Klingon language got a headline in The Hollywood Reporter. That inspired a tweet from Star Trek Beyond director Justin Lin, who wrote, “This is getting ridiculous! I support the fans. Trek belongs to all of us.”
This is getting ridiculous! I support the fans. Trek belongs to all of us.https://t.co/mYMqIDXqHu
— Justin Lin (@trailingjohnson) March 14, 2016
Axanar producer Alec Peters basked in glow of Lin’s attention, blogging, “You got to love it when you wake up to the Star Trek Director Tweeting that Paramount suing Axanar is ridiculous.”
But the tides of the P.R. battle changed the very next day when Star Trek actor and famed blogger Wil Wheaton took Axanar’s producers to task on his Tumblr.
“[They] raised a TON of money,” Wheaton wrote, “and spent it to build a studio, which will (presumably) be used to turn a profit from other productions once Axanar’s production is completed. They also sold unlicensed coffee, using copyrighted Star Trek names, and have generally been epic douchecanoes about the whole thing.”
Wheaton said Axanar has “put all fan films at risk, because they exploited the passion and love that Trekkies have for Star Trek to get money, and now they’re acting like they’re innocent victims of big bad CBS. … They are morally and ethically and legally in the wrong.”
On Facebook, Battlestar Galactica actor Richard Hatch posted support for Axanar: “I sincerely hope the Studios can come on board and support these fan efforts and make them a partner in their success.” He is slated for a principal role in Axanar.
His post sparked an intense debate that soon had the admins on Hatch’s page admonish: “This page is NOT a debate forum for Axanar.”
Meanwhile, Wheaton’s words prompted Peters to address what he called detractors’ three myths — 1. that Axanar Productions is making a profit, 2. that it built a profit-making studio (“Ares Studios”), and 3. that money is at the center of the lawsuit.
AxaMonitor examines each of these claims in its piece “Axanar Myths”, demonstrating that Axanar uses a specific definition of profit, while the lawsuit itself does not use that word to describe Axanar’s alleged commercial exploitation of Star Trek copyrights. CBS and Paramount instead assert defendants gained a “direct financial benefit.”
Axanar’s 2014 Kickstarter raised $638,471, much of which went to build Ares Studios, initially intended for producing Axanar and eventually a subscription sci-fi film production business.
“I could see us having ten channels in the future of not just Star Trek programming but all kinds of programming that we’re going to create,” Axanar director Robert Meyer Burnett said on the Official Axanar Podcast.
Plans to sell Ares Studios?
Meanwhile, Axanar Productions owes another two years’ studio rent ($250,000). Buried in his Mythbusters-style blog post, Peters announced that a secret private investors’ group intends to buy out the studio improvements paid for with donors’ money — at least $400,000, according to Axanar spokesman Mike Bawden — and that this group would manage the facility in the future.
In his final point, Peters asserts, “the plaintiffs have told us this [lawsuit] is not about money, it is about copyright infringement.” However, two of the suit’s causes of action deal with revenue: That “defendants enjoy a direct financial benefit” from the production, and they believe they are entitled to “offer for sale derivative Star Trek works.”
Also last week, presiding federal Judge R. Gary Klausner declared the defense’s dismissal motion moot, sending the case to its next step: a pre-trial meeting on May 9 where the two sides will meet to agree on plans for gathering evidence in the case.
The week wound up with a notice on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) that Axanar had reverted its production status from ‘preproduction’ to ‘in development,’ a backwards step on its road to making the film.
AxaMonitor.com is a journalism wiki about the copyright lawsuit against Axanar. Its mission is to inform readers about what’s at stake, and the suit’s possible impact on fan productions and copyright law. Among its resources are the Axanar FAQ and a timeline of the case. On Twitter @AxaMonitor.
Carlos Pedraza is a screenwriter and independent film producer, a former Associated Press reporter and non-profit consultant, and a former writer-producer for the fan productions, Star Trek: Hidden Frontier and Star Trek: New Voyages.