Last December, Paramount Pictures and CBS Corp. filed a lawsuit against Alec Peters and Axanar Productions for copyright infringement regarding Star Trek.
Stating he was making a fan-film and couldn’t understand why he was being sued, Peters told The Hollywood Reporter he’d long “asked CBS to give [him] guidelines similar to what Lucasfilm had done for fans of Star Wars" fan-films. Any infringement was only because no clear rules existed.
“There is nothing,” Alec later wrote on his website, “that the Axanar team would like to see more than a set of guidelines from CBS so all fan-films can operate in a way that benefits everyone."
This past week, Paramount and CBS released those long-requested guidelines, a common set of rules which, if followed, both corporations say they “will not object to, or take legal action against” any fan-film production that follows them. Shortly after the rules were published, Axanar director Robert Meyer Burnett labeled them “draconian,” a term that has since been picked up by others and used in numerous conversations.
But, are these rules “draconian.” If so, how? And in comparison to what?
To answer those questions, I made a side-by-side breakdown of the Star Trek guidelines vs. Star Wars rules. Wherever possible, I tried to make a direct comparison using Trek as the starting point and referencing the comparable language in the Star Wars licensing agreement/entry form. Here I will summarize the endless similarities between the two sets of rules, with an eye to addressing the most common objections floating around the Web. From time to time, I’ll use the general “you” to refer to a hypothetical fan-filmmaker.
In relation to what existed before — the unpublished “Gentlebeing’s Agreement” that allowed Star Trek fan-filmmakers wide latitude in the creation of fan films — these new Trek guidelines no doubt seem draconian. But when you have unfettered access, any limitation can be seen that way. Yet in comparison to Star Wars — the long cited golden example of how a media property and company should treats its fan-filmmakers — these guidelines aren’t draconian. They’re the same rules Star Wars fan-filmmakers must follow, tweaked for the peculiarities of what CBS and Paramount are doing.
First, the key thing to remember is that the only way to make a Star Wars fan-film without running the risk of getting sued is through the official Star Wars Fan Film Contest. While people make films outside of that contest, those all legally infringe. Just like CBS and Paramount are now doing to Axanar, Lucasfilm and Disney can sue those filmmakers who don’t enter the contest. No license, you infringe.
To not infringe, you enter the contest. In return, you are licensed a limited set of rights to use the Star Wars IP. That license ends at the end of the contest. You can no longer legally use the Star Wars intellectual property. Lucasfilm and Disney walk away with all their rights to Star Wars — and with a perpetual license to your work. The CBS guidelines don’t do this. They just stake out safe grounds to avoid legal objections.
At the end of the day, Star Trek fan-films are still yours (though your work is derivative of another’s content.)
With that understood, one of the main complaints about the new Trek guidelines is the curtailed total run time of episodes and the inability to tell on-going stories, season-to-season style. No way around it, that’s a big change. And unless CBS and Paramount allow some kind of grandfathering, long-running fan series like "Star Trek Continues" or "Star Trek: New Voyages" will have to change formats or shut down.
In comparison to Star Wars, though, Trek projects can be six times longer, as Star Wars fan-films are limited to five minutes, tops. Also, since Star Wars only allows one fan-film to be submitted per year, officially, that five minutes is all a Star Wars filmmaker gets. Even with new rules, if you can make Trek fan-films, you can make multiple productions a year. If you make Star Wars, you are limited to one.
On limits, Trek does now have a maximum $50,000 crowdfund cap for any single production. In the era of million-dollar Trek films, that’s a big change.
In relation to a 15- or 30-minute story, that’s also still a lot of money to work with. Most fan productions weren’t raising the multiples of dollars Axanar or others were. Even here, though, Trek filmmakers come out ahead. While there’s no explicit prohibition in the Star Wars rules against crowdfunding, Lucasfilm has stated they don’t allow it for their fan-films. Indeed, Peters even referenced this ban earlier in June.
The ban on professionals — especially celebrities — from Star Trek fan-films is a not a unique requirement. Star Wars fan-films are limited in the same way. Since the Star Wars rules also apply to family members of celebrities, professionals and employees of parent companies, it’s a much more restrictive rule. It’s possible to argue Trek’s lifetime ban vs. Star Wars’ “previous six month” ban is more restrictive in that sense, but given the breadth of both franchises’ reach, it’s more a distinction without much practical difference.
If you earn a check from either Star Wars or Star Trek, you can’t make fan films. Your immediate family members, either, in the case of Star Wars.
The Trek guidelines now require films to be family friendly and suitable for general public consumption. To hit the metabolically moribund horse with a blunt bat’leth again, this is a Star Wars rule as well. Indeed, the actual language between both documents is pretty much word-for-word the same. Whatever obstacle this might place in the way of a Star Trek storyteller, it’s nothing professional Star Trek storytellers haven’t encountered before.
No less a leading light that Gene Roddenberry found creative ways around standards and practices to get his message across. Again, both fan universes are on similar footing here.
Turning to uniforms, props, and various accessories, the new Star Trek guidelines do lay down a restriction that doesn’t exist for Star Wars fan-films: Don’t make your own props if there’s one for sale from an official Star Trek license holder. Obviously, CBS and Paramount aren’t interested in unlicensed items eventually being made available for sale, in violation of their licensing agreements. Or, depending on your point of view, they’re just greedy, though I can’t see fan-filmmakers being a large enough market segment to justify such a statement. Either way, Star Wars fan-films don’t have that restriction.
But Star Wars fan-films are restricted to a very specific set of music and audio assets for their productions, ones that Lucasfilm makes available at the start of each contest. No other music or sound effects are allowed. Star Trek has no such restriction.
Lucasfilm further tightly restricts any third-party IP from appearing in a Star Wars fan movie. Anything from visible/recognizable logos on clothing to recognizable works of art aren’t allowed. Trek filmmakers, provided they have signed releases, have no such restrictions. Two ways the Trek guidelines are more freeing.
Titling? Disclaimers? Revenue generation prohibitions? Advertising? Between Star Wars and Star Trek, there are comparable rules in place, though in certain cases such restrictions aren’t applicable, as Star Wars avoids much of the potential for brand confusion or filmmaker monetization by limiting fan-films to one distribution platform: theirs. The wider number of places Trek films can go, guidelines are in place to deal with that.
In neither case is any money allowed to be generated from Star Wars or Star Trek fan-films, profit or not.
CBS guidelines read like a condensed version of Star Wars rules because, by and large, they are with tweaks to language and for differences between the extending of licenses and providing a way for non-licensees to avoid getting sued. CBS/Paramount and Lucasfilm/Disney have designed both sets of rules to protect their rights to their IP, while still providing an acceptable way for fans/non-rights holders to make something they love.
If the Trek guidelines are draconian, it’s because the Star Wars ones are too. Axanar got exactly what they asked for.
Even with restrictions, the Star Wars Fan Film Awards continue to draw entries. Even with restrictions, Star Wars fans keep making fan-films for that contest. Even with restrictions, Star Wars creators keep finding ways to make their visions — and they are no different, no better, nor any less imaginative than Star Trek creators are.
"Star Trek: New Voyages," "Star Trek: Renegades," "Star Trek Continues," "Star Trek: Axanar" — these big and prominent productions draw the most attention, but they aren’t where most of the Star Trek fan-film action is. Yes, those big productions raise the most money, draw the best actors, and have the best production values. There are, though, a larger number of Trek fan-filmmakers who work outside of that spotlight, creating their own visions, with their own efforts. Even some of these productions will have to change under the new guidelines.
Many won’t, as they were already fan-filmmakers using creativity and enthusiasm to tell stories that fit within guidelines that hadn’t even been invented yet. Aaron Vanderkley’s six-and-half minute “Needs of the Many” film is one such example. (It’s damn good, too.)
The firmament still exists. It never was multi-part episodes, celebrity cast members, or Hollywood-sized budgets. It was always imagination. Pure and simple imagination, be it that of the fan-filmmaker, their team or their audience.
The only thing draconian, the only thing cruel, here is the suggestion that Star Trek fan-filmmakers can no longer tell great stories. Silliness. The desire burns too bright to be stopped by an obstacle.
Star Wars fan-filmmakers do fine under these rules. Star Trek fan-filmmakers will do even better.
Jody Wheeler provides a side-by-side comparison of the fan-film rules that govern Star Trek and Star Wars. See the full chart right now at AxaMonitor.
A former therapist and social worker, Jody Wheeler is a writer-producer based in Los Angeles. He's chief executive and creative partner at Cthulhu Crush Productions, where its latest release, the horror-thriller "WTF!" is due out this summer. His film credits can be found on his IMDb page.
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