Friday, January 20, 2017

Thoughts on the Star Trek Fan Film Copyright Lawsuit

A copyright lawsuit against Star Trek fan film creator Axanar Productions is going to trial this month. CBS and Paramount alleged infringement after Axanar raised over $1 million to produce a freely downloadable Star Trek movie and a previously released teaser. The case raises a host of interesting issues, which I’ll look at over a couple of posts.

I found this case notable for how it fits into the expansion of copyright protections and the influence of repeat litigants. Copyright has evolved to protect increasingly granular elements of a story (i.e., protecting discrete things in a story, not the entire work). It was once questionable if an isolated character could be protected, but now copyright extends to means of transportation (Batmobile), monsters (Godzilla), and implements of mass murder (Freddy Krueger’s glove). 

This is good for copyright holders. It is easier to prove infringement a copyrighted light saber than it is to show that someone copied the story of a farm boy who learned a mystical religion, got a light saber, found out his dad was Darth Vader, and so on. The Star Trek suit falls into the trend of increasingly granularity; CBS and Paramount assert protection of individual phrases (“beaming up”), made-up languages (Klingon), and fictional styles of architecture.

These allegations are not surprising, but they are interesting as part of a continuing trend of large-scale copyright holders attempting to protect small elements of a story. These parties will be repeat litigants, and they aim to craft beneficial precedent. It behooves them to allege granular protection, see if any assertions catch the court’s favor, and proceed with likely winners. Losing allegations are dropped or the case settled. Content owners thus secure caselaw supporting granular (easily infringed) copyright, without creating adverse precedent. This is smart business, but limits authors and filmmakers who must avoid these copyrights.

I’m also curious about the message sent by this case. Most fan fiction/films are either tacitly accepted by copyright holders or endorsed as advertising. This lawsuit will certainly chill the production of fan fiction and films—especially high-end works. Was Paramount so concerned about competition from fans that it was willing to lose the goodwill that Axanar could have generated? A million dollar fan film might have "competed" with Star Trek movies to some extent, but it almost certainly would have created significant buzz among fans. I wonder if other franchise-owners would have made the same decision. At this point, I doubt they’ll have to; I wouldn’t expect any fan to be willing to venture into “high-end” fan works anytime soon for fear of a lawsuit.

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