The long and winding tale of CBS and Paramount versus Axanar has finally come to an end. Much later, I think, than anyone wanted.
Back in 2015, CBS and Paramount filed a lawsuit against the Star Trek fan film Axanar, alleging copyright infringement. Axanar had raised over $1 million through crowdsourcing to make a prequel movie set in the Star Trek universe. In response to the lawsuit, Axanar’s lawyers asked for more specificity on what, exactly, the owners of Star Trek thought the Star Trek fan film was taking from them. CBS and Paramount’s lawyers responded with 28 pages of very specific examples, ranging from the appearance of Vulcans to the whole of the Klingon language.
Things got even weirder in May of 2016, when J.J. Abrams stepped into the fray, saying that suing over the film wasn’t an “appropriate way” of dealing with fans. And then he announced “within the next few weeks, it will be announced this is going away, and that fans would be able to continue working on their project.”
That, obviously, didn’t happen. What did happen was that the Paramount and CBS released a set of rules that, if followed, would protect fan films from lawsuits. They were complicated and hard to parse. And then, the parties were back in court a month after Abrams said the suit was going away. By last week, things had ended up really dire for Axanar, when the judge said that they couldn’t claim their film was fair use and, instead, a jury would be asked to decide whether or not their film was substantially similar to Star Trek.
And it was going to be a uphill battle for Axanar to say their Star Trek film wasn’t a lot like Star Trek. Fair use would have let them say that, yeah, there were some Star Trek elements in their film, but that there were other factors that outweighed that use enough to let them escape liability. Without that shield, they were going to be in trouble.
This was a case where no one looked good. CBS and Paramount were going after fans of one of their largest properties, right around when they should have been celebrating the franchise’s 50th birthday. Axanar was getting dangerously close to losing this case and setting a very negative example for fan works. Even though nothing going on in this case was legally binding on other cases, it would give a blueprint for suing fans that other studios could follow. No one was getting out of this one unscathed.
But finally, the two parties have managed to come to an agreement. In it, Axanar Productions and Alec Peters, the man behind the films, acknowledge that Axanar and its prequel, Prelude to Axanar, “were not approved by Paramount or CBS, and that both works crossed boundaries acceptable to CBS and Paramount relating to copyright law.” The agreement allows Peters and his company to release Axanar, but only as two 15-minute segments that can be put on YouTube without ads. (I am sure one of the reasons that Paramount and CBS were so mad at this film in particular was because it might make money off ads.) Prelude to Axanar will still be viewable, but it will also not have ads.
The version of Axanar that will be released will not be the version Peters originally intended to release. The agreement requires “substantial” changes and that Axanar hew to the aforementioned fan film guidelines released by CBS and Paramount.
I’m sure no one got exactly what they wanted from this agreement, but at least it’s finally over.