Last week, CBS issued what many consider to be Draconian guidelines for fan-produced films – limited budgets, no former Trek actors involved, and no more than two segments of 15 minutes each. From a marketing standpoint, this is a disaster. Lucasfilm, which sells licenses to produce some really well-made unauthorized work, actively supports fan-generated work. It lets them control their intellectual property better. At the other end of the spectrum is EON Productions, who hold the film rights to James Bond. EON simply says no up front. Just ask Kevin McClory’s estate. McClory sued over work done on the original project for Thunderball and tried to make a rival Bond series. They only allowed him to make one awful remake of Thunderball, Never Say Never Again. Bond does not seem to be hurting from the dearth of fan-produced films. In either case, the owners of said properties are being consistent. So when Lucasfilm says no, you know someone crossed a well-defined line.
So why do the legal departments of Paramount and CBS look like their fan relations are run by a degenerate patent troll of late?
Well, simple. There’s a movie someone’s trying to make a film called Axanar. If the 20-minute Prelude to Axanar is anything to judge by, it promises to be stunning. Here’s the problem. Alec Peters, the mastermind behind Axanar, raised one million dollars in two rounds of crowdfunding, built himself a studio he has stated he plans to use for new projects, and paid himself a salary.
Yeah, if he were doing that with the Compact Universe without my permission, my mortgage, student loans, and car would be paid off, and my retirement funded after I got done in court. Well, actually, I’d license it and demand a cut of the profits, but I’m happy if my sales get out of single digits from month to month, so bad example. But you get the point. That’s my intellectual property, and if someone raised a million dollars and paid themselves a salary to make a film based on it without my permission, I’d be pissed.
Flattered, but pissed.
CBS/Paramount (all really National Amusements) has screwed themselves by having a permissive and poorly defined approach to fan-generated work. The courts look at patents, trademarks, and copyrights by how a plaintiff in an infringement case enforced their rights in the past. But Peters has to admit he’s broken the law. The countersuit that claims CBS/Paramount does not own Trek is asinine at best. You might not be able to copyright the Klingon language (That should be tried in court someday. Can you patent/trademark/copyright a language?), but the names, symbols, storylines, and prop designs all belong to the Roddenberry family, the corporate successors of Desilu (That would be Paramount and CBS), and the writers and producers tasked with creating them.
Years and years ago, I wrote a series of adventures about the USS Alliance, a dreadnought that prowled the galaxy in the years following Star Trek: The Motion Picture. My captain, TJ Durant (who bears an uncanny resemblance to an older JT Austin), looks and acts like the Chris Pine version of James T. Kirk. So what would happen if I went after JJ Abrams and said, “Hey! You stole my ripoff of the franchise you’re now running!”?
Not only would I be in the poor house, but I’d be a real douche. And why would I want to do that? I have no intention of running for office. Anyway, I didn’t write it to make money or to tweak Paramount’s nose. I did it because I had stories to tell and wanted to build a starship of my own. So, no, it’d be stupid of me to tell Abrams he ripped me off (I seriously doubt he ever read anything I wrote. Not that many people did. It’s fanfic. No one does.) I did it to, as Mick Jagger put it, to get my yea-yeas out.
I have no doubt Alec Peters is a huge fan. It shows in what he’s completed already. But in the end, it belongs to CBS and Paramount. Probably the best solution is a one-off license. Let Peters finish with an agreement that he makes no more, and he can take his new studio and make whatever else he wants. Then go copy George Lucas’s notes on how to have fan work not conflict openly with the franchise. Because being a spoiled brat vs. a glorified patent troll is not going to make anyone happy with either side.