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Copyright Case: Can You Create Your Own Star Trek Movie?

A current lawsuit brings into question the amount of copyright protection afforded to Star Trek, one of the most successful TV and film franchises.

A group of Star Trek fans have been working to create an unauthorized prequel film to be titled Axanar. They’ve put together a short “mockumentary” called Prelude to Axanar to help promote and raise funds for the forthcoming feature:

Paramount, the owner of the official Star Trek franchise, has filed a lawsuit alleging copyright infringement.

Interested in Science Fiction related IP Issues? Check out my podcast episode on Star Wars Trademarks.

This week, the defendants (Axanar Productions), filed a document with the court that raises some interesting questions. Essentially, in Paramount’s complaint, they cited the many Star Trek TV series and feature films which amount to “thousands” of copyrights, and claimed that the Defendants are infringing on those copyrights as a group.

Axanar Productions responded:

…Defendants have no way of determining which copyrights, or how many copyrights, Defendants allegedly infringed among the “thousands” of copyrights that Plaintiffs allege they own…The Star Trek Copyrighted Works do not all contain the same characters, starships, plots, and other features.

As Brock Wilbur over at Inverse suggested, this looks like a demand that Paramount explain how the whole Star Trek universe ties together. A claim of copyright infringement must be specific. You can’t just state, in effect, that “this seems like a Star Trek movie, so it’s a copyright infringement.”

Unfortunately for Axanar, it’s unlikely that this argument will be successful. Based on a brief review of Prelude to Axanar, it’s clear that the costumes, sets, makeup, and spaceship design are all intended to suggest that they’re part of the Star Trek universe.

A basic understanding of copyright law suggests that you can have an effectively unlimited number of “derivative works” that all flow from one original work. Here, the original work may be, for example, the script for the original Star Trek pilot episode. The subsequent pilot, and every work of media that followed thereafter, are all derivative works.

The 1976 Copyright Act, U.S.C. § 106, states, in relevant part:

…the owner of copyright under this title has the exclusive rights to do and to authorize any of the following:

(2) to prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work;

It would take a truly novel theory of copyright to suggest that Prelude to Axanar (or, most likely, the forthcoming Axanar) is not an unauthorized derivative work of the original Star Trek copyright. Paramount may simply need to draw a more direct connection between the protectable elements of particular films and episodes and the allegedly infringing works. But that’s more a matter of paperwork than a fundamental flaw in Paramount’s case.

The Defendant’s recent filing can be read below:


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