Earlier this 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.
A few months after the complaint was filed it appeared that the movie studios and the Axanar team had found a way to resolve their issues. During a Star Trek fan event director J.J. Abrams announced that the case would be over soon, citing discussions with Star Trek Beyond director Justin Lin.
“We started talking about this realizing that this is not an appropriate way to deal with the fans. The fans should be celebrating this thing,” Abrams said. “So Justin went to the studio and pushed them to stop this lawsuit and now, within the next few weeks, it will be announced this is going away.”
However, as time passed it appears that the director had spoken too soon, or perhaps made up the entire claim ad-lib. The case didn’t “go away” at all and this week it became clear that Paramount and CBS Studios see J.J. Abrams’ comments as irrelevant.
Both parties are currently in the discovery phase where they hope to gather evidence from the other side to back up their claims. Axanar was particularly interested in obtaining any communications the studios had with Justin Lin and J.J. Abrams, which seem to favor their claims.
However, through their lawyers CBS and Paramount refused to hand anything over, noting that this is information is irrelevant, if it exists at all. “We objected to your requests for communications with Justin Lin and J.J. Abrams as irrelevant, and did not agree to produce those documents,” they wrote in an email earlier this month.
To resolve this and other outstanding discovery disputes, the parties now ask the court what information should be handed over, and what can remain confidential.
In the joint motion (pdf) CBS and Paramount reiterate that the comments J.J. Abrams made are “not relevant” to any party’s claim. The directors are not authorized to speak on behalf of the movie studios and their comments have no impact on the damages amount, they argue.
“J.J. Abrams is a producer/director of certain Star Trek Copyrighted Works and Justin Lin was the director of Star Trek Beyond. Neither Mr. Abrams nor Mr. Lin is an authorized representative of either of the Plaintiffs,” the studios claim.
“A third party’s statement about the merits of this lawsuit has absolutely no bearing on the amount of money Defendants’ obtained by their infringing conduct, nor does it bear on any other aspect of damages,” they add.
Axanar disagrees with this assessment. They claim that Abrams statements about dropping the “ridiculous” lawsuit in the interest of fans, is central to a possible fair use claim and damages.
“Statements that Star Trek belongs to all of us and that the lawsuit is ridiculous and was going to be ‘dropped’ is relevant to the impact on the market prong of the fair use analysis, and Plaintiffs utter lack of
damages,” Axanar claims.
The court will now have to decide what information CBS and Paramount must share. It’s clear, however, that J.J. Abrams spoke way too soon and that the movie studios are not ready to drop their lawsuit without putting up a fight.
While Abrams may not have realized it at the time, his comments are a blessing for the fan-film. It offers Axanar great leverage in potential settlement discussions and will reflect badly on CBS and Paramount if the case heads to trial.