By David Honig, Esq.*
In 1966 the world was introduced to the crew of the USS Enterprise NCC-1701! On September 8, 2016, 50 years will have passed since we joined that intrepid crew on its five year mission. Over the course of
a half century Star Trek has amassed a following unlike any other. The original series, which only made it to the air because of Lucille Ball, lasted only three seasons before it was canceled. Gene Roddenberry’s tale of a future where humanity put its petty differences aside to unite and explore the stars did not end, however, when the last episode aired on June 3, 1969.
After being canceled Star Trek spawned a franchise that consists of an animated television series, major motion pictures, comic books, novels, numerous spin-off shows and a Las Vegas attraction. But most importantly, Star Trek took firm root in the hearts of its fans. As a testament to their devotion, fans have learned Star Trek’s alien language Klingon, going as far as translating Hamlet, and a few other works, into their beloved alien tongue.
Like all good works of fiction, Star Trek developed a life of its own and inspired a parade of unauthorized fan fiction. While a phenomenon like Star Trek lives and dies with the fans, it exists as property owned not by the fans but by a major corporation. As such, Paramount and CBS have a vested interest in protecting the rights associated with their copyrights under 17 U.S.C. 106. Specifically, the copyright holder has exclusive rights to reproduce, create derivative works, distribute copies, and perform and display the work publicly.
Fan fiction regularly infringes a copyright because copyright often covers more than just the work itself. Instead, copyright has been extended to cover characters and settings as well as other literary elements, see Walt Disney Productions v. Air Pirates, 581 F.2d 751, 754-5 (2d Cir. 1978).
Fan fiction violates the exclusive rights of a copyright holder in two ways, expressly or through derivative works. A piece of fan fiction that incorporates a character or setting from the original work infringes – since, as just discussed, the character is subject to copyright protection and using the character violates the exclusive right to reproduce. Similarly, fan fiction violates the exclusive right to create derivative works even as the fan-author creates her own story, because of familiar settings or characters derived from the original work. It is also worth noting that selling or distributing fan fiction does not change the fact that it infringes the original copyright. Commercializing a work, or more precisely the effect on the market for the original copyright, only comes in when determining whether the fair use exception applies not whether something infringes.
When deciding to prosecute copyright infringement the holder is faced with a Kobayashi Maru scenario – in the Star Trek universe, the Kobayashi Maru refers to a training exercise designed to place starfleet cadets in a no-win scenario. The copyright holder must decide whether it should allow the copyright to be infringed or enforce its rights and risk the ire of fans. The amount of money involved in fan fiction infringement is usually nominal compared to the risk of alienating fans. Additionally, because of the uncertainty of fair use protection under 17 U.S.C. 107, fan fiction is often left alone even when the potential infringer is making money. This is a simple cost benefit analysis. However, there are instances where the holder does assert its copyright and recently some Star Trek fan fiction has fallen into that category.
Anyone who has ever been to a comic convention knows that there are people dressed up as starfleet officers, members of the United Federation of Planets or other Star Trek Characters. These fans are often wearing uniforms that they made themselves which include elements that are subject to copyright protection – such as the starfleet insignia. For various reasons Paramount and CBS will not go after these fans, the damages are de minimis
In addition to wearing costumes, many of these fans will also create their own movies, comics or other form of art – even the Internal Revenue Service is not above creating such a video. These videos are usually viewed as harmless since they have no impact on the market for the genuine article and if anything they endear fans to the source even more by allowing them to continue to engage in ways that traditional content does not allow. There is a limit, however, to what the Star Trek copyright holders will accept before they begin enforcing their rights. It seems that a fan project that raised over a million dollars and was set to be released the same year as Paramount’s next installment in the Star Trek motion picture franchise was too much.
Star Trek: Axanar, a fan film set before the original 1966 television series, raised over a million dollars on Indiegogo and Kickstarter. The film, which follows a successful short that raised over $100,000 on Kickstarter in 2014, raised its funds with some encouragement from Star Trek alum George Takei. With a mounting economic incentive, on December 29, 2015 Paramount and CBS filed a lawsuit against the producer of the film, Axanar Productions (“Axanar”), alleging copyright infringement.
Among other aspects of Star Trek such as history and characters, the complaint claimed a copyright over languages. What might have seemed to be one more violation to the copyright holder and its attorneys ended up developing a life of its own.
First Axanar, responded by filing a motion to dismiss claiming that Klingon, a language invented for Star Trek, could not be protected by copyright law under Baker v. Seldon, 101 U.S. 99 (1879), because it is an idea or system. In response, Paramount claimed that the Klingon language isn’t useful, wholly fictitious and “there are no Klingons with whom to communicate.” After Paramount responded to Axanar’s motion the Language Creation Society submitted an amicus brief in support of Axanar.
The brief begins with a curious footnote quoting Marc Okrand, author of The Klingon Dictionary and creator of the language, claiming Okrand “has asserted that the Klingon language, tlhlngan Hol, was received by him from a captured Klingon named Maltz.” The brief thus concludes that Plaintiffs cannot claim otherwise in this litigation, citing to Arica Inst., Inc. v. Palmer, 970 F.2d 1067, 1075 (2d Cir. 1992), to support its position. The Language Creation Society does not pull any punches stating, “Feeling ownership and having ownership are not the same thing.”
The Language Creation Society’s brief is quite an enjoyable read. The brief quotes Star Trek: The Next Generation, recognizes there is a child who was raised as a native speaker of Klingon and intersperses Klingon phrases written in the Klingon alphabet throughout. What might appear as gimmicks actually make the Language Creation Society’s point stronger – Klingon is a real language spoken by real people so much so that it can be used coherently in a brief amicus curaie. If the point of filing this brief was to argue that Klingon has taken on a life of its own as a communication system then there truly is no more powerful tool to prove this postulate than by showing Klingon can indeed act as a communication system instead of just reporting on its wide use.
Alas, the issue will not be adjudicated, at least not in this case. On Friday May 20, 2016 J.J. Abrams, the director of the first two Star Trek reboot films, announced that the lawsuit against Axanar would be dropped. The announcement was made during a fan event to promote the third installment of the rebooted Star Trek franchise, which Abrams serves as a producer, Star Trek Beyond. Unfortunately, this voyage is not yet over.
Abrams merely announced that Paramount WOULD drop the lawsuit not that the lawsuit WAS dropped. In fact, four days after the announcement Axanar an answered amended complaint and filed a counterclaim to ensure it met court ordered filing deadlines. Additionally, CBS and Paramount are working on fan film guidelines and if Star Trek: Axanar, or some other fan film, does not follow those guideline then the Star Trek copyrights will most likely be enforced again. Clearly there is still work to be done before Axanar, its fans, and producers and fans of other Star Trek fan fiction can proclaim Qapla’.
- Complaint, Paramount Pictures Corp. v. Axanar Productions, Inc., No. 1:15-cv-09938-RGK-E (N.D. Cal. December 29, 2015).
- Defendants’ Notice of Motion and Motion to Dismiss or Strike in Part Plaintiffs’ First Amended Complaint; Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Support Thereof, Paramount Pictures Corp. v. Axanar Productions, Inc., No. 2:15-cv-09938-RGK-E (N.D. Cal. March 28, 2016).
- Brief for Language Creation Society as Amicus Curiae supporting Defendants, Paramount Pictures Corp. v. Axanar Productions, Inc., No. 1:15-cv-09938-RGK-E (N.D. Cal. April 27, 2016).
- Mike Bawden, Axanar Productions Answers Amended Complaint, FIles Counterclaim, Axanar, May 24, 2016, http://www.axanarproductions.com/axanar-productions-answers-amended-complaint-files-counterclaim/.
- Eriq Gardner, Crowdfunded ‘Star Trek’ Movie Draws Lawsuit from Paramount, CBS, The Hollywood Reporter, December 30, 2015, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr-esq/crowdfunded-star-trek-movie-draws-851474
- Eriq Gardner, ‘Star Trek’ Lawsuit Now Explores What Vulcans and Vampires Have in Common, The Hollywood Reporter, March 29, 2016, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr-esq/star-trek-lawsuit-explores-what-878837
- Eriq Gardner, ‘Star Trek’ Lawsuit: The Debate over Klingon Language Heats Up, The Hollywood Reporter, April 28, 2016, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr-esq/star-trek-lawsuit-debate-klingon-888419
- Alec Peters, JJ Abrams Announces that Paramount to Drop Lawsuit!, Axanar, May 22, 2016, http://www.axanarproductions.com/jj-abrams-announces-that-paramount-to-drop-lawsuit/.
About the Author: David Honig is a post graduate fellows at the Center for Art Law. He is a member of the Brooklyn Law School class of 2015. While attending law school he focused his studies on intellectual property and was a member of the Brooklyn Law Incubator & Policy (BLIP) Clinic. He is admitted to New York and New Jersey state bars. In the Fall of 2016 he will be pursuing an LL.M. in taxation from NYU Law.
Disclaimer: This article is for educational purposes only and is not meant to provide legal advice. Readers should not construe or rely on any comment or statement in this article as legal advise. Instead, readers should seek an attorney.