Judge Says Copyright Case Against Star Trek Fan Film Can 'Live Long' And Possibly 'Prosper'

from the resistance-is-futile dept

Just yesterday we filled you in on the latest in the copyright fight over a professional-level "fan film" in the Star Trek universe, dubbed "Axanar" (along with a short film "Prelude to Axanar.") The makers of that film tried to get the case dismissed, arguing that Paramount Pictures and CBS failed to state an actual claim of copyright infringement. Specifically, they were arguing that Paramount/CBS highlighted a bunch of things related to Star Trek, some of which they may hold a joint copyright over, but failed to state what specific copyright-covered work the Axanar productions were infringing. And, of course, there was a side note in all of this that one of the many things that Paramount and CBS tossed against the wall claiming copyright was the Klingon language itself.

This morning, the court released two short rulings, with the first one dumping the amicus filing over whether or not there was a copyright in the Klingon language. That one was short and sweet and just said that at this stage of the game the court has no reason to explore whether or not languages can be covered by copyright and "therefore, none of the information provided by Amicus is necessary to dispose of the Motion to dismiss."

As for the main show, Judge Gary Klausner also denied the motion to dismiss, saying that Paramount and CBS had certainly presented enough details to state a credible claim of copyright infringement, and the case should move forward. Klausner also did not miss his chance to have a little fun with the PACER entry about his ruling:
If you can't read that, the key part states:
Although the Court declines to address whether Plaintiffs' Claims will prosper at this time, the Court does find Plaintiffs' claims will live long enough to survive Defendants' Motion to Dismiss.
Har har. Can't wait for all the Star Trek references in the eventual ruling, right? But in denying the motion to dismiss, things are pretty straightforward. Basically, Paramount/CBS has at least shown enough to state a copyright claim, and then the case can move forward from there to determine whether that claim is real.
The Court finds the Complaint sufficiently provides Defendants notice of the allegedly infringing elements at issue. For example, Plaintiffs allege that the Starship U.S.S. Enterprise, which first appears in the pilot episodes of The Original Series and is consistently portrayed throughout the franchise’s episodes and films, appears in Defendants’ Prelude to Axanar.... This provides Defendants with notice that their use of the U.S.S. Enterprise is potentially infringing each Star Trek Copyrighted Work in which the U.S.S. Enterprise appears. Further, Plaintiffs allege that Soval, a character first seen in an episode of the Star Trek Enterprise television series and later seen in other Star Trek Copyrighted Works including the 1979 Motion Picture, appears in Defendants’ Prelude to Axanar wearing a copied costume and portraying himself as the same Soval character as in the Star Trek Copyrighted Works.... This provides Defendants with sufficient notice that their use of Soval in the context of Prelude to Axanar is potentially infringing each Star Trek Copyrighted Work in which Soval appears.
The Axanar filmmakers had also argued that because the complaint's claims were all "on information and belief," that was insufficient to state a copyright claim, but again, Judge Klausner rejects that argument:
Here, Plaintiffs’ allegations based on “information and belief” are bolstered by specific facts and many allegations gleaned directly from comparing the works at issue and from Defendants’ public postings on social media. For example, Plaintiffs include a screenshot of Defendants’ Facebook post of a photo of Defendant Peters posing with a “fully revised and locked script.” ... Plaintiffs’ copyright infringement allegations as to the Axanar Motion Picture are based on this script, along with the Vulcan Scene.
As for the big question about whether languages, uniforms, triangular uniform badges, etc. are even subject to copyright in the first place, the judge takes Paramount's argument that when put altogether, there is something protectable:
Defendants contend that non-protectable elements include the following: (1) costumes; (2) geometric shapes (e.g., the Starfleet command insignia); (3) words and short phrases (e.g., the names of planets or races); (4) elements of works derived from nature, the public domain, or third party works (e.g., Vulcans’ appearance with pointy ears or the concept of warp drive); (5) the Klingon language; (6) the mood or theme of “science fiction action adventure”; (7) scenes-a-faire elements (e.g., staples of science fiction such as starships and medals on uniforms); and (8) characters identified by Plaintiffs (e.g., Garth of Izar, Soval, and Robau). The Court finds that Defendants’ argument mischaracterizes the scope of Plaintiffs’ copyright claims.

When viewed in a vacuum, each of these elements may not individually be protectable by copyright. Plaintiffs, however, do not seek to enforce their copyright in each of these elements individually. Rather, Plaintiffs’ copyright infringement claims are based on the Star Trek Copyrighted Works as a whole. The Complaint clearly defines the works at issue (the Star Trek Copyrighted Works), and includes the copyright registration numbers for the motion pictures and the first episode of each television series. The Court finds it unnecessary to analyze whether the allegedly non-protectable elements of the Star Trek Copyrighted Works are eligible for copyright protection because Plaintiff describes these elements in the Complaint solely in an effort to demonstrate how the Axanar Works are substantially similar to the Star Trek Copyrighted Works
A separate question was raised over the fact that the feature length film hasn't even been made. The Axanar folks argued that it was premature to claim copyright infringement, but kind of messed up their own case by announcing on Facebook that the script was "fully revised and locked." The judge basically takes that as an admission that it's written and thus could be infringing:
Taking Plaintiffs’ allegations as true, the Court finds it plausible that Defendants have completed a final script of the Axanar Motion Picture. The Court will be able to analyze substantial similarity based on the script and the already disseminated Vulcan Scene.
The court also rejects Axanar's assertion that this would be prior restraint, noting that Paramount hasn't even asked for an injunction blocking the making of the fan film:
Finally, Defendants argue that it would be an impermissible prior restraint for the Court to allow Plaintiffs’ claims based on the Axanar Motion Picture to proceed. This argument is unavailing. Plaintiffs have not yet filed a motion for injunctive relief and Defendants are not restrained by the filing of this Complaint. Rather, Defendants are on notice that Plaintiffs allege certain copyright infringement allegations against them. This ruling does not affect Defendants choice to proceed with the production of the Axanar Motion Picture.
That part feels like a bit of a stretch, because obviously this kind of case could serve as significant disincentive to proceed, and lots of courts have found mere barriers to publication of content to be a form of prior restraint. For example, there was a case that once found a tax on paper and ink to represent a First Amendment violation.

However, at this point, the Judge has seen enough to say that the case should move forward and that Paramount/CBS have stated at least enough of a claim to move forward.

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Filed Under: axanar, copyright, fan film, klingon, star trek
Companies: axanar productions, cbs, paramount, paramount pictures

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 May 2016 @ 11:22am


    I'm thinking about writing a story about a humanoid character named Bob, on a planet in space named Earth orbiting a star named Sun, who goes around getting into various situations, dramas and adventures with other humanoids on that planet. Then I'll wait until someone copies my "character" or "idea" and sue the pants off them. Yeah, I'm starting to like copyright better already.

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