These are the voy­ages of the Star Trek lit­i­gants

Ob­ses­sions ▶ Para­mount is su­ing the maker of a Star Trek- in­spired video ▶ “They re­al­ize that their fans are their big­gest as­sets”

Bloomberg Businessweek (North America) - - Companies/Industries - �Ed­vard Pet­ters­son

As Para­mount Pic­tures pre­pares to cel­e­brate Star Trek’s 50th an­niver­sary with the re­lease of Star Trek Be­yond in July, the stu­dio has rea­son to thank the fran­chise’s fans. Since al­most the first Star Trek TV episode, Trekkies have fueled in­ter­est in cre­ator Gene Rod­den­berry’s sci­ence fic­tion fan­tasies, spawn­ing their own works, hold­ing con­ven­tions, and spurring the cre­ation of 12 movies and five fol­low-up TV se­ries. “They re­al­ize that their fans are their big­gest as­sets,” says Re­becca Tush­net, an in­tel­lec­tu­al­prop­erty expert at Ge­orge­town Univer­sity Law Cen­ter.

Now, the stu­dio says, one fan has gone too far. Alec Peters has made a 20-minute Star Trek docu­d­rama called Pre­lude to Ax­a­nar, re­count­ing a con­fronta­tion be­tween the Fed­er­a­tion of Plan­ets and the Klin­gon Em­pire.

Cre­ated with $100,000 raised on Kick­starter, the video has gen­er­ated more than 2 mil­lion Youtube views since Peters posted it in Au­gust 2014. Para­mount Pic­tures and CBS, the own­ers of the Star Trek movie and TV fran­chise, have filed a copy­right in­fringe­ment law­suit against Peters, say­ing he copied nu­mer­ous el­e­ments from their prop­er­ties.

The law­suit, which on May 9 sur­vived Peters’s mo­tion to dis­miss, ar­gues that the video in­fringes Para­mount’s and CBS’S copy­rights, “which, of course, we will con­tinue to vig­or­ously pro­tect,” the stu­dio and CBS said in an e-mailed state­ment. They’re ask­ing the judge to rule that their work has been used with­out per­mis­sion and to or­der Peters to stop the al­leged in­fringe­ment. The stu­dio and net­work are seek­ing $150,000 in statu­tory dam­ages for each copy­righted work they claim has been in­fringed. Peters says he’s not us­ing any main Star Trek char­ac­ters; the stu­dios, he re­sponds, haven’t shown that they’ve been harmed by his video.

The stu­dios are tak­ing a risk by go­ing to court. “You don’t want to go af­ter your own fans, be­cause it can cre­ate a back­lash,” says Rollin Ran­som, an in­tel­lec­tual-prop­erty lawyer in Los An­ge­les. Some copy­right hold­ers, such as Lu­cas­film, the Walt Dis­ney unit be­hind the Star Wars movies, en­cour­age fans by hold­ing an an­nual con­test for the best short-form fan videos. “These are the peo­ple who are watch­ing, buy­ing, and read­ing your prod­ucts,” says Steve San­sweet, for­mer head of fan relations at Lu­cas­film.

In­ex­pen­sive dig­i­tal video equip­ment and easy-to-use edit­ing tools have helped fuel the fan film genre. Video sites such as Youtube are filled with trib­utes to and par­o­dies of TV shows, movies, and video games, in­clud­ing Game of Thrones, Doc­tor Who, Bat­man, and Call of Duty. Copy­right hold­ers were more ag­gres­sive in the early days of the In­ter­net, ac­cord­ing to Tush­net. To­day, stu­dios such as Para­mount “rarely in­ter­fere with what fans do” on­line, she says.

Why sue Peters and not other fans? Para­mount doesn’t of­fer an ex­pla­na­tion. Tush­net and Ran­som say they know of no com­pa­ra­ble suit filed by a stu­dio over a fan film. They spec­u­late that the pro­fes­sional na­ture of Peters’s work and the money raised may have alarmed Para­mount and CBS. “Pre­vi­ous Star Trek fan films have been self­funded,” says Tush­net. “The con­cern for the stu­dios would be that if this is go­ing to be a big deal, they need to get out in front of it,” says in­tel­lec­tu­al­prop­erty lawyer Aaron Moss, who has rep­re­sented Ja­panese movie stu­dio Toho over the un­li­censed use of its best-known char­ac­ter, Godzilla.

Pre­lude to Ax­a­nar, which in­cludes in­ter­views with Starfleet com­man­ders played by pro­fes­sional ac­tors, is the pre­cur­sor to a planned fea­ture-length film for which Peters has raised $638,500 on Kick­starter. The movie will tell the story of Garth of Izar, a Starfleet cap­tain who ap­peared in the orig­i­nal TV se­ries as an in­mate at an in­sane asy­lum and a hero of Cap­tain Kirk’s.

Peters, who was 6 when the TV se­ries pre­miered in 1966, has had a life­long fas­ci­na­tion with Garth. “If Garth is Kirk’s hero, I want to know who this guy is,” he says. He and his lawyer, Erin Rana­han, say the works break new ground. “What we’re do­ing is cut­tingedge,” Peters says.

The out­come of the suit will likely rest on whether Rana­han can con­vince the judge that Pre­lude to Ax­a­nar is trans­for­ma­tive, adding new mean­ing to the orig­i­nal works. The case could ul­ti­mately pro­vide guide­lines for how to make the longer movie with­out run­ning afoul of the stu­dios, Rana­han says. For now, Peters’s fea­ture film is on hold un­til the law­suit is re­solved. The bot­tom line The writer-di­rec­tor of a Star Trek fan film cap­tured Para­mount’s and CBS’S at­ten­tion af­ter rais­ing more than $600,000 on Kick­starter.

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