It’s been a month since CBS Corp. and Paramount Pictures Inc. shocked the Star Trek fan community when it filed a copyright infringement suit against Alec Peters, his planned full-length Trek production, “Axanar,” and its already-produced short, “Prelude to Axanar.”
From almost the beginning, Peters has championed the professional quality of “Axanar” and defended its need to raise more than $1.1 million from fans, even after being served with court papers. And in an exclusive sit-down with 1701News, Peters refuses to back away from those claims.
“There’s a reason why ‘Prelude to Axanar’ and ‘Axanar’ look like professional movies, because we have professionals working on them,” Peters said. “These are professionals. They do this for a living. They’re not fans who are voice actors, or Elvis impersonators who have a hobby and have always wanted to play Capt. Kirk. That’s not to knock fan films. I’m just saying, if you want volunteers, you get a certain quality. You want professionals? You’ve got to pay for them. It’s real simple.”
In fact, that’s the very reason why Peters says Paramount and CBS targeted “Axanar” in the first place.
“It’s real simple: Because of our quality,” he said. “‘Star Trek Continues’ is a fan film. Amateur actors, beautiful sets, well-done photography. But it’s a fan film. There’s no way you take that for a real TV show.
“‘Star Trek: New Voyages’? Fan film. It looks good — well directed — but no one’s ever going to take that for a network TV show.”
Yet those seem to be the very reasons Paramount and CBS chose to take “Axanar” to court, and not the “fan films.” In a statement released to 1701News, the two companies called Star Trek a “treasured franchise in which CBS and Paramount continue to produce new original content for its large universe of fans. The producers of ‘Axanar’ are making a Star Trek picture they describe themselves as a fully professional, independent Star Trek film.”
“Their activity clearly violates our Star Trek copyrights, which of course, we will continue to vigorously protect.”
The fact that CBS and Paramount are not taking other unofficial Trek productions to court is exactly what Peters says his pro bono legal team will defend in court.
The two studios “already said that it’s OK, basically, letting these guys go,” Peters added. “‘Star Trek Continues’ has raised $400,000, and you haven’t said anything about that. ‘Star Trek: Renegades’ has raised $800,000, and they use characters from the original too.”
In essence, by not going after those other productions, CBS and Paramount have waived their rights to go after “Axanar,” Peters concludes. And he’s ready to use that against them.
“It’s going to have no effect on fan films,” he said. “‘Star Trek Continues’ is starting another Kickstarter. Which is going to be real interesting because that Kickstarter, if that isn’t stopped by CBS, we can use that against them in court. That’s good for us because one of our arguments is waiver. They waived their rights because they let this go on for so long.”
Yet, intellectual property attorney Suzi Marteny disagrees … to a point.
“If you got a copyright, there is no obligation to go after every infringer,” said Marteny, an attorney with Shumaker Loop & Kendrick in Tampa, Florida. “But from an equitability perspective, if you’re targeting one person, they could have an argument that you’re specifically targeting them and never enforce these rights on everyone else. They could have an argument, but I don’t know how much that would carry the day.”
To claim a copyright, CBS and Paramount have to meet specific conditions to prove their case, Marteny said. First, they have to show “Axanar” had access to the copyrighted material, that they did indeed copy it, and that it resulted in something that is substantially similar to copyrighted material.
But Peters maintains he had at least tacit approval from CBS representatives during a sit-down the two sides had last August at Creation Entertainment’s official Star Trek convention in Las Vegas.
“What they said was they won’t give me any feedback to help us,” Peters said. “They couldn’t tell us what we could do and what we couldn’t do. When we cross the line, they’ll let us know.”
Peters shared that conversation with the trade publication The Wrap a short time later, telling them that CBS simply stated they “couldn’t make any money off the project.” That same story, however, included a statement from CBS that said the media company has “not authorized, sanctioned or licensed this project in any way, and this has been communicated to those involved. We continue to object to professional commercial ventures trading off our property rights, and are considering further options to protect these rights.”
But that apparently didn’t faze Peters.
“In the past, where they did have a problem with a fan film, they contacted that fan film, and only once did they ever issue a cease and desist order,” Peters said.
While cease and desist demands from lawyers can be effective, they don’t carry the force of law. Nor are they required ahead of any litigation like what CBS and Paramount filed against “Axanar,” attorney Marteny said.
“I think on a case like this that is high profile, they are trying to make a point,” she said of CBS and Paramount. “They didn’t want to shut them down quietly. Maybe they want to shut down all fan films, and want to have a precedent. They could be saying, ‘Make a fan film, but be prepared, we’re going to enforce our rights.'”
Whether or not it violates what Peters said was CBS’ directive to not make money, one of the larger criticisms coming from fans was the fact that Peters revealed he collected a $38,000 salary from the “Axanar” crowdfunding. However, Peters defended that move.
“I’m not volunteering my time,” he said. “I can’t do this for free. If I make minimum wage, I’m lucky. The fans who donate? They understand. They don’t have any problem with me paying myself.”
In fact, those that seem to have the problem, according to Peters, are those who are not donors.
“The donors, for the most part, are the ones who get it,” he said. “They see the work we put into it, they feel the love on a daily basis from us. Unfortunately, you have a lot of people who have never been in business, and they have a problem with Alec paying himself.”
Is earning a salary the same as profit? It’s actually a non-starter, Marteny said.
“There is no requirement to make any money with copyright infringement,” she said. “Making a profit has nothing to do with whether you are infringing someone else’s work. It has to do with damages and liability.”
And Peters didn’t just pay himself. He also paid actors and crew to work on “Axanar.”
“Well, it’s real simple: We don’t ask anyone to work for free,” Peters said. “They all get paid. When Richard Hatch worked on ‘Star Trek: New Voyages,’ he got paid. When Lou Ferrigno was on ‘Star Trek Continues,’ he got paid. Actors are always getting paid.
“Crew? We had two Academy Award winners working on ‘Prelude to Axanar.’ Now those people can go out and work for $500 a day. They’re coming to work for us for $150 a day. Is it wrong that we pay them? You know, if you want a fan film, then go see a fan film. We’re trying to make the best Star Trek possible.”
And at the end of the day, when it comes to what unauthorized Star Trek production is violating copyright more, Peters says it’s not “Axanar.”
“We violate CBS copyright less than any other fan film,” he said. “‘Star Trek Continues’ and ‘Star Trek: New Voyages’ violate more than we do.”
“Axanar,” Peters said, doesn’t call itself “Star Trek” anymore, nor does it use iconic characters like Kirk, Spock and McCoy.
“We don’t use the chevron,” he added. “We don’t use the uniforms you’re used to seeing. We don’t use (the Original Series) bridge or sets. Those two productions (‘Continues’ and ‘New Voyages’) are entirely copyright infringement.”
Since the lawsuit, there has been a lot of contention online, but Peters claims nothing negative directly to him.
“I have so many people who contact me, it’s ridiculous the amount of fans who send me positive messages,” Peters said. “I have not had one hater message me on Facebook. They’ll talk about me elsewhere. But the message is this: ‘This is the best Star Trek we’ve seen,’ and ‘Are you OK?’ It’s very nice, and I’m doing great.”
But “Axanar” itself is on hiatus, as Peters welcomes an unnamed second legal team to join his already announced pro bono representation of Winston & Strawn. Even with that well-established law firm on his side, Peters wants to never have to step into a courtroom.
“What we’re hoping for is a settlement,” he said. “We definitely don’t want to have to go into litigation, and that’s just a road … it’s one that we’re prepared for, but we don’t want to be doing. The best way to make ‘Axanar’ is to reach a settlement with Paramount/CBS and see where it goes from there.”
It’s fair to say that there is some cause for worry. When a multimillion-dollar corporation serves you with a lawsuit, that isn’t an issue to be taken lightly.
Peters reaction, however? “Game on.”
Additional reporting by Michael Hinman.
An explanation of the editorial process behind this interview from the editor-in-chief of 1701News, as well as additional quotes that were part of the first draft of this story, can be found right here.