Star Trek & copyright infringement

There are few fans like geek fans. And among geek fans, Trekkies have a pretty good claim to the title of “geekiest” and “fanniest.” Or maybe “most fan-ish”?

Anyway, what I’m saying is that we geeks, and we fans of Star Trek, really love our shows. So much so that we can develop a sense of ownership of our favorite shows and characters.

But a group of committed fans is learning the hard way that a “sense of ownership” is not the same as actual ownership.
These fans want to make their own Star Trek movie – a prequel entitled Axanar, set 21 years before the first appearance of James T. Kirk and featuring Kirk’s hero, Captain Garth of Izar. It sounds like it could be awesome, and I’m not the only geek to think so. The producers raised $1 million in a Kickstarter campaign to get their movie made. With that money, they got actors and crew and equipment and props.

What they didn’t get was permission.

CBS and Paramount own the rights to the Star Trek enterprise (pun totally intended). Because Axanar uses what they describe as “innumerable copyrighted elements of Star Trek, including its settings, characters, species, and themes,” those companies have filed suit to stop production of the movie.

CBS and Paramount have known for decades that Star Trek’s fans create their own pieces based on the settings, characters and themes of the Star Trek universe. They have at least tolerated that fan fiction, and it’s probably fair to say they’ve encouraged it. That doesn’t mean all that fan fiction was lawful, or that it didn’t infringe on the Star Trek copyright. Much (probably most) of that fan fiction almost certainly did infringe on the copyrights – but CBS and Paramount didn’t chase down every teen crafting her own Kirk and Spock adventure.

The fight over Axanar shows there is a limit to how much copyright infringement the companies will put up with. It is also a reminder that no matter how much we might love the stories and characters created by our favorite writers, we don’t own those creations.

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