New Star Trek Fan Film Guidelines Have a Chilling Effect on Star Trek Fans

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The back-and-forth between Paramount and CBS (both owned by Viacom) and the makers of Star Trek fan film Star Trek: Axanar has taken yet another weird turn, resulting in the Viacom subsidiaries sending Star Trek fan creators a list of guidelines under which fan creations can continue to be made.

The guidelines are prefaced with an open letter, posted on StarTrek.com:

Dear Star Trek fans,

Star Trek fandom is like no other.

Your support, enthusiasm and passion are the reasons that Star Trek has flourished for five decades and will continue long into the future. You are the reason the original Star Trek series was rescued and renewed in 1968, and the reason it has endured as an iconic and multi-generational phenomenon that has spawned seven television series and 13 movies.

Throughout the years, many of you have expressed your love for the franchise through creative endeavors such as fan films. So today, we want to show our appreciation by bringing fan films back to their roots.

The heart of these fan films has always been about expressing one’s love and passion for Star Trek. They have been about fan creativity and sharing unique stories with other fans to show admiration for the TV shows and movies. These films are a labor of love for any fan with desire, imagination and a camera.

We want to support this innovation and encourage celebrations of this beloved cultural phenomenon. It is with this perspective in mind that we are introducing a set of guidelines at Star Trek Fan Films.

Thank you for your ongoing and steadfast enthusiasm and support, which ensure that Star Trek will continue to inspire generations to come.

CBS and Paramount Pictures

The letter links to the complete set of guidelines here.

CBS and Paramount Pictures are big believers in reasonable fan fiction and fan creativity, and, in particular, want amateur fan filmmakers to showcase their passion for Star Trek.  Therefore, CBS and Paramount Pictures will not object to, or take legal action against [emphasis mine], Star Trek fan productions that are non-professional and amateur and meet the following guidelines.

The promise of legal action makes these fan creation guidelines the latest move in the ongoing dispute between Paramount and the creators of Star Trek: Axanar. To summarize: Axanar Productions raised over $630,000 on Kickstarter (well past their goal of $100,000) to fund a Star Trek: Axanar feature film which would depict an original story based on an event in the 50-years long lore of the show. The amount attracted the attention of Paramount Pictures, who filed suit claiming infringement on the Star Trek trademarks and rights which they own. Axanar countered, asking Paramount to specify the trademarks and trade dress being infringed. Paramount obliged and it looked like the studio and Axanar Productions were heading to court until Star Trek movie directors J.J. Abrams and Justin Lin lobbied Paramount to drop the suit, claiming that the dispute was now doing greater harm to the widespread public opinion of the franchise than a fan film ever could.

The matter seemed settled until today, with CBS and Paramount’s release of the fan creation guidelines:

Guidelines for Avoiding Objections:

  1. The fan production must be less than 15 minutes for a single self-contained story, or no more than 2 segments, episodes or parts, not to exceed 30 minutes total, with no additional seasons, episodes, parts, sequels or remakes.
  2. The title of the fan production or any parts cannot include the name “Star Trek.” However, the title must contain a subtitle with the phrase: “A STAR TREK FAN PRODUCTION” in plain typeface. The fan production cannot use the term “official” in either its title or subtitle or in any marketing, promotions or social media for the fan production.
  3. The content in the fan production must be original, not reproductions, recreations or clips from any Star Trek production. If non-Star Trek third party content is used, all necessary permissions for any third party content should be obtained in writing.
  4. If the fan production uses commercially-available Star Trek uniforms, accessories, toys and props, these items must be official merchandise and not bootleg items or imitations of such commercially available products.
  5. The fan production must be a real “fan” production, i.e., creators, actors and all other participants must be amateurs, cannot be compensated for their services, and cannot be currently or previously employed on any Star Trek series, films, production of DVDs or with any of CBS or Paramount Pictures’ licensees.
  6. The fan production must be non-commercial:
    • CBS and Paramount Pictures do not object to limited fundraising for the creation of a fan production, whether 1 or 2 segments and consistent with these guidelines, so long as the total amount does not exceed $50,000, including all platform fees, and when the $50,000 goal is reached, all fundraising must cease.
    • The fan production must only be exhibited or distributed on a no-charge basis and/or shared via streaming services without generating revenue.
    • The fan production cannot be distributed in a physical format such as DVD or Blu-ray.
    • The fan production cannot be used to derive advertising revenue including, but not limited to, through for example, the use of pre or post-roll advertising, click-through advertising banners, that is associated with the fan production.
    • No unlicensed Star Trek-related or fan production-related merchandise or services can be offered for sale or given away as premiums, perks or rewards or in connection with the fan production fundraising.
    • The fan production cannot derive revenue by selling or licensing fan-created production sets, props or costumes.
  7. The fan production must be family friendly and suitable for public presentation. Videos must not include profanity, nudity, obscenity, pornography, depictions of drugs, alcohol, tobacco, or any harmful or illegal activity, or any material that is offensive, fraudulent, defamatory, libelous, disparaging, sexually explicit, threatening, hateful, or any other inappropriate content. The content of the fan production cannot violate any individual’s right of privacy.
  8. The fan production must display the following disclaimer in the on-screen credits of the fan productions and on any marketing material including the fan production website or page hosting the fan production:“Star Trek and all related marks, logos and characters are solely owned by CBS Studios Inc. This fan production is not endorsed by, sponsored by, nor affiliated with CBS, Paramount Pictures, or any other Star Trek franchise, and is a non-commercial fan-made film intended for recreational use.  No commercial exhibition or distribution is permitted. No alleged independent rights will be asserted against CBS or Paramount Pictures.”
  9. Creators of fan productions must not seek to register their works, nor any elements of the works, under copyright or trademark law.
  10. Fan productions cannot create or imply any association or endorsement by CBS or Paramount Pictures.

CBS and Paramount Pictures reserve the right to revise, revoke and/or withdraw these guidelines at any time in their own discretion. These guidelines are not a license and do not constitute approval or authorization of any fan productions or a waiver of any rights that CBS or Paramount Pictures may have with respect to fan fiction created outside of these guidelines.

The guidelines are extremely strict in regards to usage of materials, actors, and trademarks related to Star Trek. Under these guidelines, Star Trek: Axanar and other popular fan film creations such as Star Trek: Renegades, Star Trek: Of Gods and Men, and Star Trek: New Voyages would have to cease production and distribution immediately. The productions listed in this paragraph, as well as others, have all featured or continue to feature cast and crew from Star Trek television shows and movies. In fact, at this point in the ongoing evolution of Star Trek fan creations, it is difficult to think of a production or creation that doesn’t violate these guidelines. As such, CBS and Paramount’s release resembles a blanket cease-and-desist order more than it does a workable list of guidelines.

Nevertheless, CBS and Paramount are squarely within their legal rights to issue these guidelines. They own the trademark and trade dress to Star Trek and its constituent parts, and they are demonstrably investing time and resources into updating and working with those trademarks, producing a new TV show and a new movie this year. Star Trek: Axanar is clearly utilizing trade dress owned by Paramount and CBS, and the sheer amount raised through Kickstarter prompts reasonable doubt as to whether Axanar Production is receiving income by infringing on Paramount’s ownership of the trade dress.

Axanar Productions is unique in the Star Trek fan creation world: being arguably the only entity to raise enough money to launch a production on the same scale as a major television or movie studio. At that point, are Paramount and CBS then obligated to defend their ownership of Star Trek? Legally, the answer leans towards “yes”, but the answer in regards to nurturing the stories and fanbase of Star Trek is not as clear. Star Trek lives because its fans never gave up. They fought for a second season of the original series, and fought even harder for a third. They created fan conventions to carry the torch and spread the word. They essentially kept the Roddenberry family afloat post-Trek by purchasing Star Trek memorabilia through their company. Star Trek fans have always had a developed sense of ownership in the series and its elements. It is a core aspect of Star Trek, and one that Roddenberry himself constantly nurtured.

Paramount/CBS’s guidelines have a chilling effect on that sense of ownership. Is this the best response that Paramount and CBS could have made? And what will the fanbase’s response be?

The controversy continues to unfold. On June 29th, CBS representative John Van Citters will be discussing the guidelines on an episode of Engage: The Official Star Trek Podcast.

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