Hollywood Giants Are Headed to Trial to Kill a Star Trek Fan FilmBy
Judge rules YouTube filmmaker can’t claim ‘fair use’
Maker of ‘Prelude to Axanar’ called biggest Star Trek fan
CBS Corp. and Paramount Pictures Corp. are headed to a trial against the makers of a crowd-funded Star Trek fan film after a judge concluded in what he described as a “Vulcan-like” analysis that it mined the movies and TV-series down to “excruciating details.”
The Hollywood giants got what may be a significant advantage when the judge also ruled Tuesday that the 20-minute film that generated 2.7 million YouTube hits doesn’t qualify as “fair use” of the Star Trek copyrighted franchise. U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner in Los Angeles rejected each side’s request to decide the case in its favor without a trial.
In a rare case of movie and TV-rights owners throwing the book at one of their own fans, CBS and Paramount allege filmmaker Alec Peters has ripped off the plot, characters, costumes and spaceship design from their 50-year-old science fiction franchise. Peters claims his “Prelude to Axanar” is an original work of satire and parody and that his free-speech rights would be trampled if he’s blocked from producing a feature-length film.
The judge said it was difficult to see how the film is a “criticism” of the Star Trek works. “This is not surprising since defendants set out to create films that stay faithful to the Star Trek canon and appeal to Star Trek fans,” Klausner said in Tuesday’s ruling.
Peters’s use of the Garth of Izar character, from the original Star Trek TV-series, Klingon battleships, the Vulcan council and the teachings of Vulcan philosopher Surak, as well as the Federation of Planets spaceships “with their iconic saucer-shaped hull,” were among the numerous elements that the judge said supported his conclusion that the Axanar works are objectively similar to the Star Trek originals.
The judge said his determination that the fan movie’s elements make it objectively similar to Star Trek films was the result of the legally required, hyper-logical thinking akin to that of residents of Star Trek’s planet Vulcan. For the studios to win on their copyright-infringement claim at the Jan. 31 trial, jurors will have to decide that an “ordinary, reasonable person” would find them to be subjectively similar as well, Klausner said.
“We look forward to presenting our defense against CBS Paramount’s claims at trial,” Erin Ranahan, Peters’s lawyer, said in an e-mail. She called him “one of Star Trek’s biggest fans.”
CBS declined to comment on the ruling and representatives of Paramount didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
The showdown comes as inexpensive digital video equipment and easy-to-use editing tools have helped fuel the fan film genre. YouTube and other video sites are filled with tributes and parodies based on TV shows, movies and video games, including “Game of Thrones,” “Doctor Who,” “Batman” and “Call of Duty,” mostly without interference from copyright holders.
Peters and his Axanar Productions Inc. got caught in the studios’ crosshairs after the YouTube success of his 2014 documentary-style short that recounts a confrontation between the Federation and the Klingon Empire. After financing “Prelude” with $100,000 raised on Kickstarter, Peters is seeking enough for a full-length movie budgeted at $1.3 million.
“Prelude” features interviews with Starfleet commanders played by professional actors, including the same actor who played Vulcan Ambassador Soval in the “Star Trek: Enterprise” series reprising his role. The planned feature-length film 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.
Star Trek producer and director J.J. Abrams said in May, two months before the release of Paramount’s $185 million “Star Trek Beyond” movie, that the studio would drop its lawsuit.
Movie or Parody?
Aaron Moss, a Los Angeles intellectual property lawyer, said it will be an uphill battle for Peters to prevail on his fair-use defense because it’s pretty clear he set out to make a Star Trek movie, not a parody,
“If this is fair use, it would create a hole in that doctrine big enough to drive a truck through,” said Moss, of Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman & Machtinger LLP. “What would prevent a major studio from doing the same thing?”
The case is Paramount Pictures Corp. v. Axanar Productions Inc., 15-cv-09938, U.S. District Court, Central District of California (Los Angeles).