The great misconception created by the success of Rob Thomas’ Veronica Mars Kickstarter campaign is that goodwill alone could will a project into existence. That Warner Bros. had signed off on Thomas’ foray into crowdfunding served as a lower-case detail amidst the all-caps declarations about the promise of Hollywood’s new democratized age. Copyright issues and branding concerns are a real blow in the ass when it comes to attaining fan joy.
Despite that unshakeable truth, CBS and Paramount (among others) have been pretty chilled out about fan films when they could have been collecting people’s houses like they were in the end-stages of a Monopoly rout. Until recently, that is. The marriage of crowdfunding and fan films knows no more prominent title than Axanar, an unofficial, sorta prequel to the original Star Trek series. That’s doubly true now that CBS has filed a lawsuit to shut down Axanar — which raised over $1 million on Kickstarter and Indiegogo — and receive damages for their trouble.
So, why this film and not other fan efforts? Many will speculate that it has a lot to do with the upcoming third Star Trek film and the new series, but this hasn’t exactly been a dormant license over the years. It’s not like CBS suddenly realized that they have interests to protect. What seems more likely is that CBS takes issue with the Axanar team’s commitment to making a product with the look of a bigger-budgeted and authentic-seeming project thanks to the size of their budget.
Basically, if you can see the strings and people are making phaser mouth noises, no one is going to mistake you for an authorized project and they probably aren’t going to come down on you. But if you have that sheen, watch out. That’s true even if you aren’t trying to make money — a detail that Axanar producer Alec Peters seemed to take comfort in previously when he spoke to The Wrap about the prospects of incurring CBS’ wrath. However, if you read further, you come across the prophetic words of attorney Lincoln Bandlow, who added his thoughts on the matter.
“If it’s based on characters or other protectable elements of the ‘Star Trek’ work, then what they are doing is a derivative work and that’s a copyright infringement that is highly unlikely to be a protected fair use,” he said.
He added: “Just because there are a lot of these fan versions being done doesn’t make it legal.”
According to his post-filing remarks to THR, though, Peters is ready to fight.
“We’ve certainly been prepared for this and we certainly will defend this lawsuit. There are a lot of issues surrounding a fan film. These fan films have been around for 30 years, and others have raised a lot of money.”
So, strap in and get your popcorn as this fight advances. And if you wrote a Star Trek fan script, burn it in a fire and bury the ashes.