Last year, Paramount Pictures and CBS Studios filed a lawsuit against the makers of a Star Trek inspired fan film, accusing them of copyright infringement.
The dispute centers around the well-received short film Star Trek: Prelude to Axanar and the planned follow-up feature film Axanar.
Among other things, the Star Trek rightsholders claim ownership over various Star Trek related settings, characters, species, clothing, colors, shapes, words, short phrases and even the Klingon language.
The case is now heading towards a trial, which means that the ultimate decision may sit in the hands of a jury. However, this week the court shared its opinion on some crucial issues, responding to motions for summary judgment submitted by both parties earlier.
The Axanar team, for example, informed the court that their films do not infringe Star Trek copyrights. One of the main reasons, according to the makers, is that it clearly falls under fair use. However, the court sees the situation differently.
After weighing the four crucial factors for determining fair use, District Court Judge Robert Klausner concludes that the fan-film is not entitled to a fair use defense.
In an order published this week he explains that even though the film will be distributed for free, it has a commercial nature because the makers profit in other ways. For example, through other job benefits that flow out of it.
Another crucial factor is the amount and substantiality of the infringing elements that appear in the film. Here, the court also concludes that Axanar went beyond fair use by including many details of the Star Trek canon which are important to Star Trek fans.
The other two factors, the nature of the original copyrighted work, and the effect on the market value of the Star Trek franchise, didn’t warrant a fair use qualification either.
“The Court thus finds that all four fair use factors weigh in favor of Plaintiffs. If the jury does not find subjective substantial similarity, Defendants did not infringe and fair use defense is moot,” the order reads.
“Rejection of Defendants’ fair use defense is consistent with copyright’s very purpose because derivatives are ‘an important economic incentive to the creation of originals’,” it adds.
Responding to the motion of the movie studios, the court separately concluded that there is an objective substantial similarity between the fan-film and the original Star Trek works.
While no ruling was made on individual items such as the Klingon language, costumes, characters or species, as a whole the overall “look and feel” was found to be similar.
That said, the court leaves a ruling on subjective substantial similarity up to the jury.
This means that one of the main questions during trial will be whether an ordinary, reasonable person would find the total concept and feel of the fan-film to be substantially similar to the original Star Trek works. This will to a large degree determine the outcome of the case.
While it’s still too early to draw any conclusions, the court’s opinion is a clear setback for the Axanar makers. With fair use out of the way, and a court that sees substantial similarity with the original works, their fate now lies in the hands of the jury.
The court’s full opinion on the motions for summary judgement is available here (pdf).