The legal drama started a year ago when CBS and Paramount filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against the producers of a full-length motion picture called Axanar, which takes its name from a famed battle on the planet Axanar, as described in the original TV series. Alec Peters, a longtime Trekkie, first produced a 21-minute film called Star Trek: Prelude to Axanar, which Paramount and CBS let slide, as it has with many other such fan videos. But that wasn’t enough for Peters – he wanted to follow up with a full-length feature film.
In an opinion handed down today, U.S. District Court Judge R. Gary Klausner, who apparently is something of a Star Trek fan himself, wrote that Peters, in “going where no man had gone before in producing Star Trek fan films, sought to make ‘a professional production … with a fully professional crew, many of whom have worked on Star Trek itself,’ and raised over a million dollars on crowdsourcing websites.”
That was just too much for CBS and Paramount, however, which then asserted the infringement of “innumerable copyrighted elements of Star Trek, including its settings, characters, species, and themes.”
Peters and his Axanar Productions filed a motion to dismiss the suit, claiming that the court shouldn’t allow the case to go to trial because the infringement claims are premature given that the motion picture is not completed. And without a completed film, Peters argued, the court cannot make the necessary comparisons to determine copyright infringement.
“The court disagrees,” the judge wrote, noting that “there is no dispute” that Paramount and CBS “have ownership of copyrights to the Star Trek copyrighted works.” The infringement claim, he wrote, “can live long and prosper if the Axanar works are substantially similar to the Star Trek copyrighted works.”
He then ruled that the Axanar works have “objective substantial similarity to the Star Trek copyrighted works. The court leaves the question of subjective substantial similarity to the jury.”
Quoting from a 9th Circuit Court ruling, the judge noted that the jury will have to determine if “an ordinary, reasonable person would find the total concept and feel of the two works to be substantially similar.”
The judge’s ruling was not a total victory for CBS and Paramount, however. They’d asked the court for declaratory and injunctive relief, which would have halted any further production of the fan film. But the judge wouldn’t go along with that, writing that they must “motion the court for such relief if the jury finds subjective substantial similarity.”
This is the lawsuit that J.J. Abrams, who produces the current Star Trek reboot film franchise and directed the first two installments, said in May that Paramount would drop. “This wasn’t an appropriate way to deal with the fans,” he said at the time.