Star Trek: Axanar

Star Trek has one of the most vibrant fan communities in Federation space and beyond. (If you have any doubts, check out Trekkies: HU DVD 744.) But like so many fan communities, Trekkies occasionally find themselves on the expensive side of copyright infringement lawsuits. While there’s no profit in learning Klingon, there is certainly the possibility of profit in creating a 90 minute film with a budget of over a million dollars. And that is, from a copyright holder’s perspective, a bit of a problem.

The issue of where to draw the line between fan and creator is at the heart of the debate over the fan-produced film “Axanar,” which spurred a copyright infringement lawsuit pitting its creator against CBS and Paramount. The proposed film is set 21 years prior to Star Trek: TOS (HU DVD 6203), and planned to use copyrighted materials extensively. As you can see from the above “Prelude to Axanar,” the film would certainly have been impressive: far above many fan created works, and worlds beyond our dearly departed Trek in the Park. A settlement allowing two short films to appear online without commercials was reached last week. This issue has been widely covered (see Ars Technica and the NYT) in part because the lawsuit represents a deviation from previous attitudes about fan created works deriving from the Star Trek franchise.

This conflict arises again and again as the line between consumer and producer is blurred. Anyone can write fanfiction. We may reach a similarly leveled playing field in film. In Star Trek’s case, an open submission policy once allowed fan-written material to make its way into the canon. Now, fan-produced works, including fan fiction and fan films, make up a thriving dimension of the Star Trek universe. Whether to embrace these efforts or play lawsuit whack-a-mole is a problem faced by creators who reach any degree of success. Who gets to participate, and how, is a negotiation happening right now in our culture and our courtrooms. And while it’s not the final frontier, it is certainly a strange new world.

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