Star Trek Fan Film Can't Claim Fair Use, Judge Rules

A copyright-infringement lawsuit over a planned "Star Trek" fan film will go before a jury after a federal judge ruled Tuesday that “Star Trek: Axanar” doesn't qualify as fair use.

Handing plaintiffs Paramount Pictures and CBS a significant victory, U.S. District Court Judge R. Gary Klausner determined that the Kickstarter-funded "Axanar" has "objective substantial similarity" to "Star Trek." However, he rejected requests by each side to decide the case in its favor, opting instead for a trial.

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Paramount and CBS, which control the film and television rights to "Star Trek," sued the producers of "Axanar" in December, seeking to block the release of the fan-made prequel, which had raised $1.3 million in crowdfunding. The action was immediately divisive, as "Star Trek" fan works had been long been tolerated by the rights holders, with the controversy drawing in "Star Trek Beyond" director Justin Lin and producer J.J. Abrams. Although Abrams announced in May that Paramount would drop the lawsuit, that obviously never happened.

Set 21 years before the second pilot of the classic "Star Trek" series, "Axanar" focuses on legendary Starfleet captain Garth of Izar and his crew during the Four Years War between the Klingon Empire and the Federation. "Axanar" filmmaker Alec Peters argued that his "Prelude to Axanar" short film amount to satire and parody, but Klausner wasn't swayed, pointing to the use of Garth, Klingon and Federation starships, the Vulcan council and the teachings of Vulcan philosopher Surak to support his conclusion that "Axanar" is objectively similar to the original "Star Trek."

However, for the plaintiffs to prevail, jurors will have to conclude that an ordinary, reasonable person would also find those elements (and others) subjectively similar.

Although Peters now won't be able to present a fair use argument, his attorney Erin Ranahan told Bloomberg, "We look forward to presenting our defense against CBS Paramount’s claims at trial." Unless a settlement is reached before then, the case will go to trial Jan. 31.

The dispute over "Axanar" led CBS and Paramount to issue guidelines for producing "Star Trek" fan films, which greatly restrict run times and number of segments and prohibit additional seasons, episodes, sequels or remakes. The guidelines, which the producers of "Axanar" criticized as "draconian," also dictate that fan productions may not be remakes of “Star Trek” films or episodes, must not use bootlegs or imitations of commercially available uniforms or props, and cannot use any writers or actors who have previously been employed on a “Star Trek” series or movie.

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