Friday, April 8, 2016
CBS/Paramount vs. Axanar: The Fan-Film Web
Hello again, and welcome back to more of my thoughts on everybody's favorite fan film lawsuit!
Well, my last post garnered even more page views, and between my last two posts, they account for over have of the total page views I've had in the entire five years I've had this blog. Therefore, I think I'm gonna keep giving the people what they want.
First off, I want to give a shout-out to Reece Watkins for echoing my sentiments in his excellent blog post on Krypton Radio (and for having the presence of mind to use the more Trek-appropriate "Kobayashi Maru", as opposed to my rather pedestrian "Pyrrhic Victory").
Secondly, here are a couple of articles that I want to delve into a bit more. Tech Times interviewed Alec Peters and Robert Meyer Burnett of Axanar Productions, as well as Erin Ranahan of Winston & Strawn. Also, Axanar's PR Director, Mike Bawden, wrote an interesting post on Axanar's blog about the need for formal rules for fan productions.
I tend to agree with Mr. Bawden. While I don't subscribe to the populist notion that "Star Trek belongs to the fans" (at least in the legal sense), there is no denying that Star Trek has inspired abundant creativity in its fandom over the decades (if you're nice, I might recite a rather bawdy poem I wrote once called "The Final Frontier"). Modern technology has made expressing this creativity incredibly easy. Why, I could get some costumes, a green bedsheet, get some friends together, and shoot a fan film on my phone! The sheer proliferation of fan productions you can find on YouTube prove its ubiquity.
Ever since James Cawley made his first episode of New Voyages, Paramount (and now CBS) has basically looked the other way regarding fan films, as long as they gave away their product for free. On the one hand, that shows a measure of tolerance to behavior that fans would likely engage in regardless. On the other, this sort of "unspoken agreement" made, at least in part, the situation Axanar finds itself in today inevitable.
I've said before that Mr. Peters' stated goal for Axanar was to make a fan-film of a professional quality. That is quite a lofty goal, and the capital required to pull something like that off is beyond what any other fan production has raised to date. This lawsuit may very well have been brought about because Mr. Peters' ambitions for Axanar exceeded CBS/P's tolerance for the existence of fan productions. In other words, Icarus flew too close to the Sun.
But would this particular Icarus have flown so high if it knew the boundaries it had to stay in in the first place?
It's not like there's no precedence for rules and guidelines regarding fan projects. Lucasfilm holds an annual contest for Star Wars Fan Films, submissions to which are governed by rules having to do with, among other things, length and content. I'm not saying that these are particularly good rules, or that these rules should be the ones adopted by CBS/P in regards to Star Trek fan productions (five minutes is just long enough to get a Red Shirt killed....), but it does show that giving defined parameters for fans to use their intellectual property for creative expression can and does work.
I'm sure that there is some way to construct a set of formal rules, or perhaps some type of limited license, that any prospective fan production would have to formally agree to in order to proceed with the good graces of CBS/P. This may not be very remunerative for them in terms of actual money, but it would potentially buy them far more good publicity than bad.
It would also forestall the possible discovery that not all of what they claim to be covered by copyright in this lawsuit is actually so covered. As has been detailed elsewhere, there are indeed elements claimed in the amended complaint which are not covered by copyright (my personal favorite is when they claim the idea of "Science Fiction Action-Adventure" as a copyrightable element). Make no mistake, there is some peril for CBS/P here in that the courts may decide certain things that they thought they owned they don't, and that fan productions will have guidance on what they can and can't do that they no longer have complete control over.
And, ultimately, I believe that is what this lawsuit is all about. Not money, not fear of competition, but control. Here's the thing about control, though: Control is only good when it is consistent and predictable. Rules (when broadly known, easily understood, and applied constantly) bring about consistency and predictability. "We can't give you guidance because that may be construed as giving license", and "If you do something we don't like, you'll hear from our lawyers" does not.