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Star Trek fan film isn't protected by fair use, rules US judge

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The case will proceed to a juried trial

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Axanar Productions

A US District Court Judge has sided with Paramount and CBS in a copyright lawsuit involving the Star Trek fan film Axanar, which had raised over a million dollars via crowdfunding. The filmmakers had argued that Paramount’s lawsuit was premature because the film hadn’t been created yet, and that they could proceed because Axanar fell under fair use. The court rejected both claims, but did allow the case to proceed with a jury to determine whether or not the project was substantially similar to the original Star Trek series.

Axanar was developed as a prequel to the original Star Trek series, telling the story of Garth of Izar and his fight against the Klingon Empire during The Four Years War. In 2014, Axanar productions crowdfunded and released Prelude to Axanar, a 20-minute, documentary-style short film that serves as a prequel to the longer film.

In 2015, Axanar Productions launched a pair of funding campaigns to film a “fully-professional, independent Star Trek film,” which would star Richard Hatch (Battlestar Galactica), Tony Todd (The Flash, 24, The Rock), Kate Vernon (Battlestar Galactica), and others. The film’s success drew a lawsuit in December 2015 from Paramount, which argued that the film infringed on the “innumerable copyrighted elements of Star Trek, including its settings, characters, species, and themes.”

Then things got complicated. During the promotional lead-up to Star Trek Beyond, J.J. Abrams announced that he and Justin Lin had pushed the studio to drop the lawsuit, and noted that the lawsuit was “going away.”

That didn’t actually happen: CBS and Paramount continued the lawsuit, and on Wednesday, US District Court Judge R. Gary Klausner issued his ruling, examined whether Axanar Productions could claim that their project fell under fair use, and whether or not the film was “substantially similar” to the works that Paramount owns. Judge Klausner determined that the production used copyright-protected works, but ruled that a jury would have to decide whether or not Axanar is objectively, substantially similar to the Star Trek franchise. That is: can a layperson watch the fan film and recognize that it’s not produced by the owners of the franchise?

The case will now go to a trial, and it means that Axanar won’t be able to claim that its production can use a fair use defense. According to Klausner’s ruling, Paramount will need to show that Axanar Productions “was actually aware of the infringing activity, or (2) that the defendant’s actions were the result of ‘reckless disregard’ for, or ‘willful blindness to, the copyright holder’s rights.”

This lawsuit has spelled out some larger consequences for the fan community that has been producing Star Trek fan films for years. In 2016, Paramount laid out a 10-part list of rules for amateur filmmakers to follow: films had to be 15 minutes or less (and can’t be episodic), the words “Star Trek” can’t be used in the title, they can’t use clips of copyrighted works, props and costumes can’t be fan-made, and the production can’t draw on the services of professionals. The rules have had a chilling effect on the community, and has seen a number of productions shut down or shift gears to tell an original story.