There always was a slippery slope when it came to what I always felt was a generous move by Paramount Pictures and CBS Corp. to turn a blind eye not just to Star Trek fan fiction but Star Trek fan productions as well.
Some of the early attempts were very low budget. It was more about good writing and some extreme technical know-how to make some of those early fan-produced episodes, and it seemed there was nothing for CBS/Paramount to worry about. Then James Cawley turned the entire fan production industry on its head with an elaborate continuation of the original “Star Trek” series, complete with sets and professional crew, that I felt would finally end CBS/Paramount’s reluctant allowance of fan productions.
Yet, the studios remained remained quiet, and didn’t say much. In fact, the only time the owners of the Star Trek properties spoke up was when some fans tried to create their own fifth season of “Star Trek: Enterprise” a decade ago, collecting more than $100,000 in actual cash from fans. That money was supposedly going to be sent to CBS/Paramount to help fund a new season of “Enterprise,” money the studio said it could never accept.
It’s been nearly 15 years since Star Trek fan productions came about, and it took nearly 15 years for one production to cross the line so much it forced the hand of CBS/Paramount to stop it. And sadly, “Star Trek: Axanar” is going to ruin it for everyone else.
I’ve read some of the commentary from fans, journalists and such, angry at CBS/Paramount for filing suit against a production that has raised something like $1 million in crowdfunding to create their production. But I am just completely lost on where this anger is coming from. What justifies it? And why can’t CBS/Paramount decide to defend its copyright whenever it feels like it?
I know that many of us have grown up on Star Trek, and we feel like we own it. But here’s the thing: We don’t. It’s not ours. It belongs to someone else. Well, two someone elses. Not even my friend Rod Roddenberry has an ownership stake in the franchise despite it being created by his father.
The move to allow fan productions of Star Trek was an unprecedented one. But then again, CBS/Paramount always has looked to break the mold when it comes to Star Trek, giving more than an inch to fans and then only watching them take a mile. Remember the unsolicited script policy Paramount had back in the day? A policy that launched the careers of many writers, like Ronald D. Moore? That lasted far longer than lawyers would’ve liked, but it was so successful in bringing fresh blood into Star Trek that Paramount had to be dragged away from it kicking and screaming. Now, the studio is like anyone else, not accepting unsolicited scripts. How many Bryan Fullers are being lost because of that policy?
Whether you like what CBS/Paramount is doing or not, the companies have every right to defend their copyrights. They have every right to give some leeway to whomever they want, and no leeway to others. They own Star Trek, and they have every right to set the rules.
And the rules always have been well-defined. The biggest one? It can’t be a commercial venture. In the beginning, that was well-understood by everyone. But as some productions pushed the envelope a little, others did it too. It went from an interpretation no one can make money on to where the person at the top can’t make a profit. That’s an amazing leap, don’t you think?
If you were giving money to a charity and you found out that while they are nonprofit, the CEO makes $10 million a year, you’d be a little angry, right? Then how is this different? Sure, there is no profit planned for “Axanar,” but you’ve just raised more money than most independent films get (and those films pay crew quite well, if not cast). How is this not a commercial enterprise? “Axanar” raised $1 million. Instead of doing it through purchases and tickets, they did it through fundraising. Instead of distributing ticket sales to its cast and crew and producers, it distributed fundraising money. What’s the difference?
I’m not saying “Axanar” is guilty of anything. But the move was enough to get CBS/Paramount to say, “Wait, hold up.” And CBS/Paramount has every right to do this. It doesn’t even have to fire a warning shot first — anyone who takes on a production using someone else’s property runs the risk of having it yanked away without warning.
Think about it this way. You want to put on a concert with a local band, and you know that this farmer in town has allowed people to use some of his vacant land for events as long as they clean up and don’t make a profit. You don’t need a contract with him or anything, you can just come and use it. Well, you start selling tickets, and the farmer decides he doesn’t like someone in the band, so even though you’ve already sold 500 tickets, the farmer yanks your venue. Is he allowed to do that? Yes. Does he have to give any warning? No.
There is no contract between CBS/Paramount and the producers of “Axanar” that I am aware of. The producers run the same risk every other fan production in the past have run when it comes to doing a Star Trek production. The only difference this time is that these producers are holding $1 million of your money.
I sincerely hope that what “Axanar” has done doesn’t hurt the future of Star Trek fan films. Some of my favorite people active in the film industry got their start in fan productions, and they told wonderful stories on limited budgets, never making a dime for their work.
But because “Axanar” thought it could be different, that it could create profit and not call it profit and CBS/Paramount would turn a blind eye, it might mean that great Star Trek fan productions will soon be a product of the past. Don’t blame CBS/Paramount — they never had to allow it in the first place. Blame those who couldn’t just leave well enough alone.