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Commentary: 'Axanar' Lawsuit A Questionable Step

Paramount, CBS should boldly explore strange new digital worlds

Some months back, I interviewed Richard Hatch and J.G. Hertzler, two of the principal cast members in the spectacular fan-funded production "Prelude to Axanar," produced by Alec Peters and Axanar Productions.

Both had expressed how innovative and exciting a venture it was, and both were looking forward to the full-length feature film "Axanar" set to be released this year. It is an innovative and exciting new entertainment model. Sad to say, there may be some doubt to the realization of that expectation.

About noon Wednesday, Peters posted an article on the Facebook Axanar Fan Group page that stated "Axanar" was facing a lawsuit from Paramount Pictures Corp. and CBS Television Studios Inc. The message was an emphatic yet vague “We are all dealing with this now.” However, given the vagaries of the communication he had with CBS before the organization of "Axanar," it is difficult to imagine what the specifics were that he had to deal with.

In a statement on "Axanar’s" website, Peters presented the relationship between "Axanar" and CBS to be an unclear one. Describing a meeting at the last Las Vegas Star Trek Convention, he sat down with “two of the top people in CBS,” and while he didn’t state the contents of their conversation, he did infer that CBS lawyers would let them know if they crossed the line.

It seems that "Axanar" has crossed the line, but if so, CBS has foregone its warning.

In the lawsuit, Paramount and CBS claim that the “'Axanar' works infringe plaintiffs’ works by using innumerable copyrighted elements of Star Trek, including its settings, characters, species and themes.” Given that "Axanar" has been well-publicized over the past year and a half, has an enormous fan base and has raised over $1 million, there are two questions that come to my mind when considering this development.

Before I state these questions, I have to declare that I’m engaging in pure speculation. I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I think I need to ask them to initiate awareness and begin some sort of understanding as to what the motivations of all the players involved are as early as possible. CBS isn’t saying very much, for obvious legal reasons, and "Axanar" and Peters are definitely being sued. So the first question is: Why now?

Look at the background to that question. Peters claims he wasn’t contacted by CBS and that the first he heard about the lawsuit was from an article by The Hollywood Reporter seen on Facebook. Given the seriousness of the situation, wouldn’t it have made sense for CBS to have kept in communication with Peters? I mean, "Axanar" hasn’t really been kept a secret, and with reasonably detailed updates on a website, a blog and a Facebook page, it’s not like they’re trying to keep underground. Peters has made CBS aware and engaged in discussions with them. In fact, in Star Trek parlance, all hailing frequencies were open.

“Prelude to Axanar” has been on YouTube since August 2014 with more than 1.7 million viewers. I’ve written articles about "Axanar" receiving international attention. With more than 13,000 contributors and that level of popularity, it’s pretty established that "Axanar" is well-received by Star Trek fans.

Those 13,000 contributors have created salaries for actors of professional-grade quality as well as industry-standard technicians; they’ve built a studio, and there are a great amount of people involved. Though they clearly believe in this project, they aren’t working for ideals alone. There’s a lot of money behind this project and it’s definitely attracted CBS’s attention.

In fact, the balance sheets and documentation Peters has provided for all of the fans in the 2015 annual report indicate where the money has been spent. Though it’s hard to discern the breakdown of the actors’ salaries, they were still paid for their time.

So, going back to that first question — why now? It seems to me that a potential reason for CBS waiting this long is to “fatten the goose,” so to speak. Though CBS has asked for an injunction, the fact that they are asking for $150,000 for every alleged count of copyright infringement just seems to add up to about $1 million by my shaky math. The focus seems to be on the money rather than the protection of intellectual property.

Perhaps Peters made a mistake at that initial meeting with CBS in Las Vegas. If CBS wasn’t going to be clear with what its reaction could be or what lines "Axanar" couldn’t cross, then maybe this was a signal that they were eventually going to go to court for damages and that he should have held off until CBS made its position clearer. In other words: Make sure the lines are clearly marked.

But here’s my second question: What does Paramount and CBS hope to gain out of this suit?

Well, the obvious answer is purely money. That’s what the suit is clearly about, judging from the wording. Apparently CBS seems to think that the best way to protect its legal property is to simply sue for damages; no guidance, no negotiation for licensing or even a simple list of what to cut from the film. Now that "Axanar" has revealed itself to be a fully funded enterprise (no pun intended), sitting on top of $1 million, CBS’s actions seem very similar to a large rat going after a smaller mouse’s piece of cheese.

I’m not defending Peters here; it is CBS’s intellectual property. He’s clearly making a film using someone else’s intellectual property as the source material. However, he’s not distributing it for sale (as the complaint alleges), and at the same time CBS is committing a major public relations nightmare by trying to crush an exemplary Star Trek production that could be added to the Trek continuum.

I think it’s safe to say that there will be no collective profit demonstrated out of this endeavor. The accounting gives a fairly reasonable indication of what the donated funds have been spent on: project-related activities, performers, technicians and materials. But what concerns me is will the individual salaries of the actors, technicians and even Peters’ own $38,000 (as indicated in the salaries section of the annual report) be enough to show that someone was making money out of the project?

I don’t know if the side effects of the suit have been fully considered by CBS. Regardless of the legality of the situation, millions of fans have seen "Prelude to Axanar," and it has only whetted their appetites for a new Star Trek film that actually resonates what these fans want to see. Attacking "Axanar" can only serve to inflame those fans against CBS and potentially sour them against projects like the release of a planned pay-per-view Star Trek next year. Think of the divided reaction to the rebooted cinematic release in 2009. Despite its financial success, fans are still very much in two camps because of the timeline issue. "Axanar" seeks to restore that timeline — or is that another issue CBS and Paramount want to quash?

Furthermore, this is an organization that really hasn’t done very much with its own television franchise since "Star Trek: Enterprise" went off the air 10 years ago. They have effectively manufactured this vacuum themselves and as soon as one of the many fan-based film projects begins to start to look financially profitable, they make a “vigorous attempt to protect (their) intellectual property”? Without warning or a cease-and-desist order, this all smacks of shady machinations and simply will only serve to alienate 1.7 million viewers of "Prelude to Axanar" and 13,000 contributors to the "Axanar" major production. That money was given in trust to Peters to produce a film the fans actually want to see. In essence, CBS is trying to take that money from the fans.

If CBS has a game plan behind its heavy-handed, intimidating tactics, could it be that it involves taking the production for its own and that this is simply the opening shot in an attempt to wrest creative control of the project? There’s a lot of this type of speculation flying around the Internet right now, and it seems to be a viable possibility. After all, with a damages suit, taking the money that is wrapped up in the material assets of the production would be the way to do it. However, taking the physical assets of the production doesn’t involve the creative direction.

In my opinion, the best course of action here seems to be negotiation. CBS can’t afford the negative press. It's got too much against it as it is: perceived mishandling of its own property, bullying aspect of a “David vs. Goliath” court case and an entire legion of vocal fans who would clearly welcome a more positive approach to handling the issue instead of a bitter and divisive legal spat.

If CBS is indisputably guilty of anything, it’s a lack of communication. Peters and "Axanar" have fans on their side because of a substantial amount of interaction with the fans. They have been involved with this endeavor from the very beginning, and because of their donations, take a great sense of ownership in the project. There is also the shared belief that Star Trek belongs to the fans. They have been patiently waiting for a new Star Trek production, and the best that Paramount has come up with is the controversial reboot. Fans don’t feel that CBS listens to them enough.

According to Peters, CBS didn’t inform him when he had crossed the line. CBS has also neglected to inform its fans about what its intentions are with the franchise. For 10 years, this franchise has languished in a creative void. This suit is a knee-jerk reaction based on a lack of perception as to what is actually good for the franchise and demonstrates a lack of involvement and intention. As the caretakers of Gene Roddenberry’s vision, CBS has a responsibility to its integrity, its fans and its interests. Perhaps this is a time to embrace fan productions, work with them to ensure that the creativity is maintained instead of alienating them and the fans who have supported their efforts. After all, who else are these shows for?

Both Hatch and Hertzler have expressed this sentiment in the interviews I conducted with them. If actors of this experience can see this as a viable option for these properties, then why can’t CBS? At the very least, a warning was required to simply give "Axanar" the benefit of adhering to practices that CBS would have approved of.

Instead of ham-fisted lawsuits, what about the notion of exploring strange new digital worlds, seeking out new life for this franchise and boldly going where no studio has gone before?

Does that sound familiar?

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