That chilling effect fans worried about from the Star Trek: Axanar lawsuit has arrived—at least as far as Star Trek fan films goes.
Folks who’ve been paying attention (such as Nate Hoffelder of The Digital Reader) have noticed that, despite the directors of the first three new Star Trek films announcing Paramount had agreed to drop the suit, Paramount has pressed right ahead with it anyway.
Now, the other shoe has dropped. In response to the whole affair, Paramount and CBS released a number of guidelines for fan Star Trek films yesterday. The complete list is several screens long, so I won’t quote it in full here, but they range from fairly large limitations (productions must be noncommercial, are limited to two fifteen-minute or one thirty-minute episode, and must not use Star Trek in the title; fund-raising efforts must be capped at $50,000) down to ones that are just plain fiddly (productions must use commercially-available Star Trek uniforms and props, not fan imitations). Also, neither actors nor staff may include anyone who’s previously worked on official Star Trek products.
The restrictions are so broad in nature that it’s hard to imagine any major Star Trek fan production that they wouldn’t prohibit:
The guidelines are extremely strict in regards to usage of materials, actors, and trademarks related to Star Trek. Under these guidelines, Star Trek: Axanar and other popular fan film creations such as Star Trek: Renegades, Star Trek: Of Gods and Men, and Star Trek: New Voyages would have to cease production and distribution immediately. The productions listed in this paragraph, as well as others, have all featured or continue to feature cast and crew from Star Trek television shows and movies. In fact, at this point in the ongoing evolution of Star Trek fan creations, it is difficult to think of a production or creation that doesn’t violate these guidelines. As such, CBS and Paramount’s release resembles a blanket cease-and-desist order more than it does a workable list of guidelines.
Until now, many of these productions have gotten by with nary a protest from Paramount or CBS. It’s possible they might continue to do so; Paramount’s guidelines only promise it won’t sue anyone who follows them, not that it will sue anyone who doesn’t. Still, it’s suddenly become riskier for such fans to continue working on these labors of love, because of one bunch of fans whose so-called “labor of love” was also a labor of profit.
The saddest thing of all about this is that in all probability Star Trek would simply have been another forgotten sixties science fiction series like Lost in Space if it hadn’t been for fans who kept it alive through the years with fan works, conventions, and the like, and made it feasible for Paramount to create the movies and new TV series down the road. The late Gene Roddenberry was very supportive of all these efforts.
Star Trek has long been a fan-driven phenomenon—but at the moment, with two recent hit movies under its belt and a third on the way, perhaps Paramount feels it doesn’t need their good will quite as much anymore. Even if every Star Trek fan boycotts Star Trek: Beyond, there are still legions of film-goers who’ve never heard of Axanar who will happily plunk down $20 to go and see it.
In one respect, the problem is a sibling to the drubbing print publishers are taking from self-publishing and independent press. John C. Bunnell wrote:
Actually, there’s a second real problem here, and it’s one that has been hovering on the edge of the Hollywood media imperium for awhile now. It’s that the technology for making and distributing quality film/video programming has become sufficiently inexpensive, and sufficiently accessible, that you don’t need major corporate backing to produce a quality feature film or “TV” serial. In absolute terms, that backing still helps, but the plain fact is that it’s now a lot harder to tell fan-produced video from studio-produced video just by looking at it.
He points out that low-budget, high-polish productions like Joss Whedon’s Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog or the various shows put on by production company Geek & Sundry have shown you don’t need a lot of money to produce hit content anymore. Modern Star Trek fan films can be good enough to threaten the profitability of Paramount’s big franchise cash cow.
Perhaps this imbroglio drives home how much less popular printed media are than video media. Fanfic has been that easy to distribute for decades now, and there are plenty of fanfic writers easily as good as anyone who’s been professionally-published—but does anyone really care? When’s the last time you heard of a Star Trek fanfic author being threatened with a lawsuit? But then, very few fanfic authors try to make money from their work, and when someone does try to self-publish fanfic (Lori Jareo, anyone?) they tend to get slapped right down.
It remains to be seen what the longer-term effects of this matter will be. A CBS representative will discuss the fan film guidelines on Engage: The Official Star Trek Podcast on June 29.
It’s especially sad that this matter is coming to the fore now, what with Star Trek movie actor Anton Yelchin’s recent tragic death.