"Star Trek" Fan Film Filed Dismissal of Lawsuit

USS Ares from
USS Ares from "Star Trek: Axanar". Axanar Productions

The legal team for Star Trek: Axanar has pulled off a brilliant counterattack to a copyright lawsuit. In December 2015, Paramount and CBS hit the fan film production of Star Trek: Axanar with a lawsuit for copyright infringement. They argued that the Axanar production violated the Star Trek copyright, since it's based on elements from the original series. It seems to be an open and shut case. But Axanar didn't just give up, but fought back.

UPDATE 3-18-16: Well, it was a nice try. On March 11, 2016, the lawyers for CBS Corp. and Paramount Pictures took on the challenge. They filed an amended complaint which includes over forty pages of specific copyright violations with comparison photos and even copyright registration numbers. The list includes characters like "Garth of Izar" from the original Star Trek episode "Whom Gods Destroy," locations such as the Klingon home world, and starships copied from movies and TV shows in the Star Trek universe. About.com will continue to follow the lawsuit as it develops.

Original Article Follows:

Star Trek: Axanar is intended to be a "fan film," which means it's being produced primarily by fans of the franchise. Paramount Pictures and CBS have been mostly tolerant about Star Trek fan films, which have gone on for decades. Most fan films have been relatively low in quality, which might be part of why they've been tolerated.

But apparently Axanar has crossed a line by hiring production crew from within the industry, employing top-notch special effects, and collecting almost a million dollars through crowdfunding to create a studio-quality film. Paramount and CBS filed a lawsuit jointly to stop the production and and sue for damages.

It seems to be an open and shut case, since Axanar isn't denying that their work is based on Star Trek. Many people (myself included) thought the production would cave quickly due to the hard-hitting legal effort. But they didn't. In fact, Axanar Productions hired Winston & Strawn, a noted law firm specializing in intellectual property cases. They came out swinging on February 22, 2016 with a hard hitting motion to dismiss the entire case before it ever reaches court.

The first part of the motion involves wording from the original lawsuit. Paramount and CBS argued that Star Trek: Axanar is "using innumerable copyrighted elements of Star Trek, including its settings, characters, species, and themes." Axanar's lawyers are demanding to know exactly which elements are being infringed.

Quoting from the dismissal motion, Hollywood Reporter points out that the Star Trek franchise involves characters, sets, and plots from the Classic Series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Voyager, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and twelve movies. According to the defendants, Paramount and CBS have to identify what films or television shows they've infringed on.

The motion continues: "Plaintiffs do not allege that Defendants are engaged in wholesale copying of each Star Trek motion picture and television episode, or even that Defendants lift substantial material from each of Plaintiffs’ alleged works.

Plaintiffs’ conclusory allegations do little to put Defendants on adequate notice of the claims against them."

In other words, Axanar is demanding that Paramount/CBS identify each specific element that violates the copyright, and where it comes from. And that's huge. Asking them to list each element could end up being a list of dozens or even hundreds of incidents. For instance, Paramount/CBS may need to list the USS Enterprise, the Battle of Axanar, Klingons, warp drive, and every other element taken from the franchise. That's a lot of work.

The second factor in the dismissal involves copyright. The lawsuit was filed jointly by Paramount  and CBS because they both share the copyright for Star Trek. It's widely believed that Paramount owns the movie rights, and CBS owns television rights to the franchise.

But Axanar's dismissal motion states, "Which Plaintiff owns which alleged copyrights is critical to Defendants’ investigation into Plaintiffs’ claims, as it could be that the only works that Plaintiffs are actually alleging Defendants infringed are owned by one Plaintiff as opposed to the other. Plaintiffs’ joint ownership allegation is not plausible in light of the contradicting information in the Complaint regarding assignment, presenting another ground upon which dismissal is proper."

Axanar is basically using the confusing tangle of copyrights against them. The rights to Star Trek have gone through a tumultuous history with various companies being closed down and changing, leaving Paramount and CBS as the final handlers. But it's far from settled with CBS and Paramount fighting over rights to Star Trek merchandise and spin-offs as recently as 2009.

To straighten out which element belongs to which company is a daunting task. For example, if the lawsuit argues that Captain Kirk is an element infringed on, then who owns Captain Kirk? Is it CBS because they own the rights to the Original Series where Kirk first appeared? Or is it Paramount, because Kirk appeared in the movie reboot series? Forcing them to identify who owns what will be a nightmare all its own.

And finally, the motion argues that "until the film has been completed, the Court will not be able to compare Defendants’ film with the relevant Star Trek films and episodes at issue to determine whether the themes, mood, setting, pace, plot and characters are substantially similar.

Moreover, to the extent any of the elements Plaintiffs are complaining about are actually protectable, Defendants intend to vigorously defend their use (if any) as a fair use. Without a film, the Court cannot evaluate the purpose and character of Defendants’ film, whether it is transformative, or a parody, and the amount and substantiality taken (if any). Similarly, the Court will not be able to evaluate any de minimis use defense."

In other words, the dismissal argues, "Hey, you can't sue us over a movie we haven't made yet." It's possible that Axanar may try to change elements listed by Paramount/CBS to reduce the number of infringements. Or it could simply be another tactic to make it harder for the suit to continue.

Will this motion be enough to dismiss the case altogether? Probably not. But they're sending a message that this won't be easy. Axanar isn't rolling over and accepting Paramount/CBS' claims at face value. They're really saying, "Is this really worth your time?" Hopefully not. I think it's a master stroke, and is certainly giving Paramount/CBS something to think about.