Captain's Prerogative: CBS Suddenly Decides To Block Fan-Created Star Trek Show Despite Past Support

from the doesn't-that-violate-the-prime-directive? dept

When you hold the copyright to something really popular—a true cultural phenomenon—the rules tend to change a little bit. The sheer size of the fanbase means stomping out every instance of infringement is completely unrealistic, so creators like George Lucas often tolerate or even support fan fiction. Since creators and companies in this situation tend to just pick and choose where to enforce their rights, their actions are usually inconsistent (Lucasfilm also shut down a fan-organized movie marathon).

CBS, which owns the rights to the Star Trek franchise, is one such company. Though they’ve meddled in harmless fan creations before, they deserve credit for being generally quite supportive of such projects, most notably the 100% fan-created web-series Star Trek New Voyages: Phase II. But, as usual, inconsistency reins—Steve R. points us to the news that CBS has blocked Phase II from producing an episode based on a long-lost, unused Star Trek script.

Last fall an unused script for the cult 1960s television show turned up after being forgotten for years. Its author, the science-fiction writer Norman Spinrad, announced it would become an episode of a popular Web series, “Star Trek New Voyages: Phase II,” which features amateur actors in the classic roles of Capt. James T. Kirk, Mr. Spock and other crew members of the starship Enterprise.

But then another player stepped in: CBS, which said it owned the script and blocked a planned Web production of it.

There are a lot of details that are important to understanding what happened. For one thing, Phase II is not some slapdash production—the show has involved several Star Trek alumni (including Walter Koenig and creator Gene Roddenberry’s son Eugene) both on and off camera, and the creators have enjoyed an open and supportive relationship with CBS. They found the contested script through Spinrad, the original writer (but not the copyright holder), who had been selling it online since he discovered a copy of it last year. CBS also had a brief dispute with Spinrad, which was settled with the removal of the script (and an agreement to make no further comment).

Spinrad and Phase II creator James Cawley don’t seem bothered—though, if they were, they wouldn’t/couldn’t say so, Spinrad because of his agreement and Cawley because of his desire to stay on good terms with CBS. Meanwhile, the fans (who were excited by the prospect of a long-lost script) get nothing. So what exactly did CBS accomplish here? Spinrad’s final comment about the dispute makes vague references to their plans to license the script, but it’s still not clear why they couldn’t let Phase II produce it anyway, especially considering they have supported them in the past. As people have pointed out, this isn’t even the first time Phase II used an abandoned Star Trek script: the 2007 episode “Blood and Fire” was originally pitched to The Next Generation in the ’80s. There may be a technical difference that some commentators are missing there, in that it seems like “Blood and Fire” was a rejected pitch while this new script was shelved during production, but exact details are hard to pin down. Either way, nobody can tell why CBS is suddenly exercising their rights over this one script when they have been so tolerant of Phase II in the past. Their statement doesn’t offer much:

“We fully appreciate and respect the passion and creativity of the ‘Star Trek’ fan and creative communities,” CBS said in a statement. “This is simply a case of protecting our copyrighted material and the situation has been amicably resolved.”

Amicably? Maybe. Beneficially? Not as far as I can tell.

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Comments on “Captain's Prerogative: CBS Suddenly Decides To Block Fan-Created Star Trek Show Despite Past Support”

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Rikuo (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Let’s say the fans did use the script in question to make their fan-made episode.
What’s stopping CBS from using the script themselves? Does the script paper burst into flames after its been used the one time?
I was a big Star Trek fan myself back in the day, but I never watched the fan-content. I preferred the official show. Besides, what’s in the script that would be worth all this protection? There was a fan movie made starring Nichel Nicholls, Garret Wang and a few other official actors from the series, all about time travel and stuff. Did the existence of this time-travel fan movie somehow stop the 2009 official movie, which also featured time travel?

Not an Electronic Rodent says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

What’s stopping CBS from using the script themselves? Does the script paper burst into flames after its been used the one time?

Would have made “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” kinda tricky if that’s what happened to scripts…. only a year on I reckon it’d still be burning. At least Star Trek’s had the time to go out 🙂

crade (profile) says:

I always find it funny how their cop out answers are always similar:
“This is simply a case of protecting our copyrighted material”

As if “protecting copyrighted material” is unavoidable or somehow useful in and of itself.

Yeah we know it’s a case of enforcing your copyrights.. The question is not what you are doing but why.

It’s like a murderer saying “This is simply a case of me pulling the trigger, your honor.” as if that explains everything.

Frankz (profile) says:

It’s my understanding that CBS didn’t block the entire show, but just blocked them from using an official, albeit unused, ST script.
The original author of this unused script liked the project so much, that he was even going to direct it for free. Nothing I read explained how CBS came to own the script he wrote, whether he sold it to them way back in the day or it was a work-for-hire.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: One thing about Norman Spinrad...

This “science-fiction writer” also wrote an script for the original Star Trek series what was produced and aired. That episode was called “The Doomsday Machine”.

I never knew they had an unproduced script from this writer. But it does make sense– that they would ask for another script from someone who has done this before…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: One thing about Norman Spinrad...

Not only produced and aired, but…. “The Doomsday Machine” was one of the most popular and highly acclaimed episodes of the entire series! I can see why that might have made someone think, regarding this other script: “Whoa! Maybe we should be sure what we want to do with this one.” Realistically though, perhaps they should be more worried about the bad publicity over stopping it?!

(From the description, it sounds far more suited to being a TV episode than a movie. I doubt that CBS will ever actually use it themselves; so, perhaps they may still come to an agreement over it.)

kenichi tanaka says:

This is a case where I have to support CBS/Paramount on this one. They have been fair with the producers of the web-based Star Trek series and this isn’t a case where they’re abusing their copyright.

This is actually a screenplay to which CBS paid for but never produced. They do have the right to exercise their copyright if they don’t want that script used.

This isn’t a case where CBS is trying to shut down the entire production, only the production based on this one script.

Rikuo (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Yes they have the legal right, no-one’s questioning that…but is it wise? Is it a good thing to exercise their legal right?
In all likelihood, there will never be another Star Trek TV series, or if there will be, not for another ten or twenty years at least. In all that time, that script has been and will be sitting on a shelf somewhere, gathering dust, unused.
What is harming CBS in allowing this script to be used? They have harmed themselves here, as there will be Star Trek fans who will say “Fuck you CBS!” at hearing this.

Copyright was originally enacted to promote the progress of culture. It was not, and should not be, interpreted to mean that you can buy ownership of a script and have it gather dust for decades, to the detriment of all.

Anonymous Coward says:

Another “Marcus doesn’t get it” post.

Marcus, pay attention. CBS owns the script. Right now, there is a second “before star trek” movie being made, and it likely won’t be long before those characters will make it sort of into the same time frame as the original crew of Star Trek. Story ideas are actually quite rare, and very valuable, even if they appear to be many years out of date. Taking this script and re-writing it might be the basis for a future movie.

Now, if it has been “killed” already by this offshoot group, it’s perhaps just not going to happen, which would diminish the value of the script, and wouldn’t get us really anything more than we would have otherwise.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“Story ideas are actually quite rare, and very valuable”

“One percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” Frank Herbert once refused an offer of a story idea in exchange for a cut of the royalties, saying that he already had thousands of ideas he didn’t have time to write. If the official owners of Star Trek can’t come up with a story idea, their problems run too deep to be solved by one old script.

Also, I’m pretty sure that Leigh isn’t Marcus.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Oh, and also, having a second group produce their own episode based on the script doesn’t prevent CBS from using that script as the basis of a movie. Scripts get reused and reinterpreted from time to time; look at The Jackal/Day of the Jackal. In addition, the two would likely be in differing formats, one an episode and one a feature film. The amount of rewriting already required would necessitate important differences, meaning that the two would be (very noticeably) different.

As mentioned above, CBS does have the legal right to do what they’ve done, but that doesn’t change the fact that there is one less episode of content in the world.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Story ideas are actually quite rare

Actually, ideas are a dime a dozen and quite common. Good ideas are a little more rare, perhaps 2 dimes a dozen.

An idea, no matter how good, by itself is nearly worthless. It’s the execution of the idea that adds almost all of the value.

If this offshoot group produce something based on that script, it doesn’t “kill” the idea. Paramount could still use it without diminishment, assuming they executed on the idea in a better way.

All that said, this isn’t a case of Paramount abusing copyright. I don’t really have a problem with their actions here.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

So a script they said didn’t work 60 years ago is now the basis of a movie. Sounds plausible.

Seriously a 60 year old script that no one even realized existed suddenly gets found by its author and given to a fan group and now the company that bought the franchise 5 years ago doesn’t want the script to be used.

Also your second paragraph makes no sense.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

You realize of course that, in the making of STTNG, some of the scripts written and unused for the original Star Trek series were used as the basis of the stories. Good ideas on this level are actually pretty rare – especially ideas that are in sync with the portrayed universe.

Cowardly Anonymous says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Good ideas for stories are not rare, people who can flesh those ideas out into something worth reading/watching/listening to are, to some extent. Aside from that, the idea will never be “used up,” so there is no need to lock it up.

What is more likely the concern here, is CBS is realizing that their supply of unused scripts (which they don’t have to hire a screen-writer to use) is dwindling. Note that this still doesn’t make their action make much sense.

Dark Helmet (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“Now, if it has been “killed” already by this offshoot group, it’s perhaps just not going to happen, which would diminish the value of the script, and wouldn’t get us really anything more than we would have otherwise.”

In every potential pitfall, there is usually great opportunity. So while you see things this way, I actually immediately thought of this:

CBS actually ALLOWS the group to produce this, but only under the caveat that CBS is allowed to feature it on their own website. Then, if it’s truly the case that this script is going to be a part of either a movie or future TV show, upon release they do something of a “And this is how we at freaking CBS do it” and then feature the TV ep. or movie side by side w/the webisode. Hell, it might even be mutually beneficial for the DVD/BR release to actually INCLUDE Phase 2’s production, a detail they could work out mutually to benefit both parties.

But this is the difference I generally see between those who support sticter enforcement of IP laws and those like me, who support more leniency: One of us sees horrible, horrible danger, and the other sees and amazing and fun opportunity….

Not an Electronic Rodent says:

Re: Re:

Story ideas are actually quite rare, and very valuable, even if they appear to be many years out of date

Pas de merde….. if there’s an original idea out there I want it caught and shot now. I think it’s been about 15 years since I saw a story that suprised me (which is about the point I saw pretty much all the possible permutations) and most stuff is so formulaic as to be almost quotable without seeing it.

Everything is re-cycled with a “new twist” (well not new but that’s usually the claim). To use “the story” as a justification for stopping something is laughable. “Because it’s our ball and you can’t play, so there!” is far more convincing.

Anonymous Coward says:

Just look at the 2009 movie that was done by so-called “professionals”.
We get a funky-looking Enterprise (whose interior looks like it was designed by someone with an affinity for clear Christmas lights) captained by someone who is no William Shatner and goes by the name James Siberius Kirk. SIBERIUS? We get a Vulcan who seems to show considerable emotion towards Uhura and a Chekov who looks nothing like Chekov. But see, all this is okay because, after all, it’s some sort of alternate timeline.
Please, Hollywood, whatever you think of us Trekkies/Trekkers, don’t insult us like that again.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Remember when the robo cop catches up with him after his little joyride and asks his name? Sure sounds to me like he says, “My name is James Siberius Kirk”. Go back and watch it. The subtitles say Tiberius, but see if it doesn’t sound like Siberius to you.
If Chekov would be a 75 year old man, my gosh, how old would that make Kirk, McCoy, Uhura, etc.? (I could also wonder what rock star THIS Chekov is supposed to resemble, but forget it.)

Not an Electronic Rodent says:

Think you mis-spoke yourself

The sheer size of the fanbase means stomping out every instance of infringement is completely unrealistic

I think you meant; “The sheer size of the fanbase means stomping out every instance of infringement that actually gets noticed is completely unrealistic”.

Fans always have and always will use content from their favorite shows (read part of their lives) in language, art, games, music and everything else. Don’t you just love it when everyone is a “criminal” and a corporation gets to pick when and who gets prosecuted for it?

Anonymous Coward says:

Paid Money

I think the point is that Desilu/Paramount/Viacom/CBS bought that script and owns the script. It doesn’t want to give it away. Let’s imagine each script is like a 1-carat diamond. You come along and say that CBS isn’t using the 1-carat diamond and you’re going to take it to put it into a ring. CBS finds out and says it wants the diamond back. It’s their’s, it’s not yours, give it back. The diamond has value, and CBS considers it stealing. For a studio, a lot of its assessed value is in the creative property it owns like scripts. Saying that this is just a script belittles its value. In fact the value of the script and the value of the diamond might be about the same these days. You just can’t come along and take a script. But, hey, if Norman Spinrad wants to write another script, then he can do that too!

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