It’s a tale as old as Kickstarter — zealous fans launch a successful crowdfunding campaign based on one of their favorite franchises, then get a cease and desist at best and lawsuit at worst from the owners of that franchise. Given that copyrights exist, the fans usually back down in short order, whether the project was meant to be a commercial venture or not. That wasn’t the case for the people behind Prelude to Axanar, a Star Trek fan film that raised over $1 million from three crowdfunding campaigns. Despite not being intended as a commercial venture, CBS and Paramount sued them in December of last year for infringement, citing “innumerable copyrighted elements of Star Trek, including its settings, characters, species, and themes.” The Prelude to Axanar team decided to go on the defensive last month, demanding that CBS and Paramount specify those innumerable elements.
What transpired next in CBS and Paramount legal HQ must have involved a lot of gleeful hand rubbing, chortling, and passing around of the “Challenge Accepted” meme guy, because this weekend, they came back hard.
In an effort to both bolster their case and prove that they could probably handle the fans in a Star Trek pub quiz, that legal team did indeed specify those elements — 28 pages’ worth, with associated legal arguments pushing the document up to 47 pages in all. They went deep, referencing the appearance of certain characters, uniforms, races, spaceships, docks, and the names of cities and characters. Pictures are provided, when relevant. The detail is all necessary — anything less gives the opposing legal team more breathing room, and legal teams tend not to do things that don’t help them win cases.
From the document, it seems clear that a lot of the changes made to avoid infringement were far too slight to have a chance of being defended (renaming Qo’noS to Q’onoS stands out). Interestingly, besides the trivia smackdown, Paramount’s legal team is also still asserting that the creators are deriving financial benefit from the project despite the movie not being intended as a commercial venture. That could be because of the non-transparent way crowdsourced funds can be used after they’ve been raised, but more likely it’s referring to future financial gains derived from the publicity that the film would generate for its creators and the film studio they intended to launch along with the movie.
Given the fact that this was intended to be the start of a new studio (Axanar Productions/Ares Studios) that would presumably operate as a for-profit business at some point, the Prelude to Axanar team probably doesn’t have a leg to stand on in court, particularly with the vicious image dump CBS and Paramount just hit them with.