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Context Is The Key To Understanding

The lawsuit against 'Star Trek: Axanar' is not big corporation vs. fans, Michael Hinman says

I think it was the late artist Kenneth Noland who said it best: "For me context is the key — from that comes the understanding of everything."

A decade or so ago, I mentored a few journalism school students, providing a real-world look at how journalism was operating at the time to compare and contrast what they were learning in college. One of them asked me once what I felt were the most important elements in journalism, what I held most sacred. The obvious answer, of course, is truth. But a very close second is context.

That's because without appropriate context, truth is not really the truth. It's like when you get into those discussions at the dinner table you should never bring up, like religion, and one side accuses the other of cherry-picking from the Bible. Sure, your sister-in-law might tell you that Jesus said, "Ask and it will be given to you." But when you look up the quote in the book of Luke, you discover that it has nothing to do with asking for whatever you want. Instead, Jesus was quite specific on what could be asked for: bread every day and forgiveness of sins.

Before you scroll up to make sure you're on the right website, the point is that context is vitally important to understanding truth. So it really dismayed me when the very respected trade magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, did a followup piece on the copyright infringement lawsuit CBS Corp. and Paramount Pictures launched last year against the "independent" fan-film "Star Trek: Axanar" and its producer, Alec Peters.

THR obviously has other things to cover than every step of the Axanar lawsuit. But we're a Star Trek site, who cares about the future of fan-films, so we've been covering it in more detail. Yet, that still doesn't excuse the March 13 story Eriq Gardner wrote, that more or less focused on one small piece of the amended complaint filed by the studios, and turned it into something silly.

While Gardner spent a couple paragraphs explaining what the whole lawsuit was about, most of his story focused more on what came off as trivial comparisons between what Axanar is allegedly including in its production, and copyrights owned by CBS and Paramount. Things like pointed ears on Vulcans, the Klingon language, and so forth.

For Gardner, talking about such details in Star Trek sounds exactly like what Trekkies must sit around doing every day. Arguing every bit of minutiae they can conjure. It's really putting Trekkies in a bad light — sure there are some fans who are like this, but far more are just casual fans who enjoy the adventures created by Gene Roddenberry.

That has created a flurry of news reports based off Gardner's initial story, which more or less focuses on what looks like a cherry-picking by CBS and Paramount just to harass some lowly fans who wanted to play Capt. Kirk and Mr. Spock.

Even "Star Trek: Beyond" director Justin Lin jumped in, probably hearing about all of this for the first time, and going solely on Gardner's reporting, saying that "this is getting ridiculous" and that he "supports the fans."

But what's ridiculous is only knowing part of the story. Of seeing a trade publication take a moment to poke fun at those silly Star Trek fans, arguing over the smallest things like what color uniforms should be, and whether Capt. Janeway's hair should be up or down whenever the USS Voyager is within five parsecs of a Borg cube.

That is not the case that was filed in December, or refiled in amended form last week. CBS and Paramount did exactly what it should've done the first time around — be specific. It showed specifically what it felt was infringing, and then presented evidence of the copyright they own.

Anyone who has experienced a successful copyright infringement case would be familiar with it. And yes, it requires very detailed reports.

Even worse, some people — including some who are supporting Axanar — making claims that CBS and Paramount can't copyright pointed ears, for example. And they are right — if the only thing Axanar allegedly did was put pointed ears on someone, that really isn't actionable.

However, what does make it actionable is if you put the pointed ears, combined with the eyebrows, the lack of emotion, and the actual name of an alien race specific to Star Trek — you know, the Vulcans — those all together? That's a copyright violation.

You can write a story and put a bunch of planets together in an alliance and be protected. But the moment you take that organization and call it the United Federation of Planets, you have violated a copyright.

You can have a captain that is respected and almost worshipped for his space war heroism, but the moment you call him Garth of Izar, you have violated a copyright.

No thanks to Lin, this is really starting to be described as a battle between the studios and the fans. But it's not. It never was. Since CBS and Paramount filed suit against Axanar last December, not a single other fan production has been sued or even issued a cease and desist. "Star Trek Continues" just began a $325,000 crowdfunding project to create more episodes. "Star Trek: Horizon," which some have said could easily rival what we've seen of Trek over the last decade, was released with not a peep from CBS or Paramount. "Star Trek: New Voyages" continues to prep its latest episode.

None of these productions have to exist. CBS and Paramount tomorrow could step in and tell each and every one to stop everything, and pull anything from the past off the Web. That's because while the joy of Star Trek does indeed belong to the fans, the copyright and ownership of Star Trek belongs to CBS and Paramount. It's that copyright and ownership that put those millions in the bank for Lin, compensating him for directing "Star Trek: Beyond."

Those who seem to understand are those who have been able to put all of this into context, and not trying to simplify it to a couple of quick soundbites. They seem to understand that this is not a war against fandom — and in fact, to those Star Trek fans who even care about this, those who are supporting Axanar are in a minority.

Wil Wheaton, you know, Wesley Crusher from "Star Trek: The Next Generation," said it best in a Tumblr post earlier this week after Lin's tweet.

"They've put all fan-films at risk, because they exploited the passion and love that Trekkies have for Star Trek to get money, and now they're acting like they're innocent victims of big bad CBS," Wheaton said. "These people are not innocent victims. They are mortally and ethically and legally in the wrong, and while I have a lot of problems with copyright and IP law, these guys are not the people I want to be the poster children for reforming those laws."

Of course, out of context, someone might accuse Wheaton of just hating fan-films. He must just hate the fans, right?

Wrong.

"I love fan-fiction and fan-films and head-canon, and everything fans do to create their own extended universes," Wheaton said. "And these jerks may have put all of that at risk, because they acted in bad faith from the beginning. They are not on your side, they are not on Star Trek's side, they are not good people."

My concern from the very beginning was how this would affect fan-films. I don't watch them, I don't follow them. But I know how much fans enjoy making them, donating to them, and experiencing them. And I don't want those threatened just because as I said before, CBS and Paramount gave an inch, and one group of fans decided to take a light year.

Just like for Kenneth Noland, context is the key. With that context, we really can fully understand everything.



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