Crowdfunded 'Star Trek' Movie Draws Lawsuit from Paramount, CBS

'Axanar' aims to be a professional-quality prequel and has raised more than $1 million.
 NBC/Photofest

For decades, Paramount and CBS have tolerated and even encouraged fans of the Star Trek franchise to use their imagination at will, but on Tuesday the entertainment companies went to their battle stations and launched a legal missile at a production company touting the first independent Star Trek film.

Axanar, the subject of a lawsuit filed on Friday in California federal court, is no ordinary Star Trek film. The forthcoming feature film (preceded by a short film) is the source of more than $1 million in crowdfunding on Kickstarter and Indiegogo. The producers, led by Alec Peters, aim to make a studio-quality film. As the pitch to investors put it, "While some may call it a 'fan film' as we are not licensed by CBS, Axanar has professionals working in front and behind the camera, with a fully-professional crew — many of whom have worked on Star Trek itself — who ensure Axanar will be the quality of Star Trek that all fans want to see."

Paramount and CBS see a violation of their intellectual property.

"The Axanar Works infringe Plaintiffs’ works by using innumerable copyrighted elements of Star Trek, including its settings, characters, species, and themes," states the complaint.

Axanar has become one of the biggest film projects in Kickstarter history and has been nearing warp speed with the reported help of Star Trek actor George Takei. The film mines subject area referenced in the late 1960s Gene Roddenberry television series and appears to be a prequel.

According to a description of the movie on the defendants' website, "Axanar takes place 21 years before the events of 'Where no Man Has Gone Before,' the first Kirk episode of the original Star Trek. Axanar is the story of Garth of Izar, the legendary Starfleet captain who is Captain Kirk’s hero. ... Axanar tells the story of Garth and his crew during the Four Years War, the war with the Klingon Empire that almost tore the Federation apart. Garth’s victory at Axanar solidified the Federation and allowed it to become the entity we know in Kirk’s time. It is the year 2245 and the war with the Klingons ends here."

By August, Peters was giving interviews expressing confidence that the project would survive any legal heat. He spoke to The Wrap that month and reported having a meeting with CBS. He says he was told the film couldn't make money — and evidently, he took that to be a good sign that his film would be tolerated as long as it wasn't a commercial endeavor. "CBS has a long history of accepting fan films,” Peters told the entertainment site. “I think Axanar has become so popular that CBS realizes that we’re just making their brand that much better.”

Not so fast.

Paramount and CBS, represented by attorneys at Loeb & Loeb, are now demanding an injunction as well as damages for direct, contributory and vicarious copyright infringement. Although the plaintiffs have allowed ample cosplaying over the years and even permitted other derivatives like amateur Star Trek shows to circulate, the lawsuit illustrates that there is a place where no man has gone before, where the entertainment studios are not willing to let be occupied: crowdfunded, professional-quality films that use copyrighted "elements" like Vulcans and Klingons, Federation starships, phasers and stuff like the "look and feel of the planet, the characters’ costumes, their pointy ears and their distinctive hairstyle."

Here's the full complaint.

In an interview with THR following the filing, Peters says, "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."

Peters, who notes he is a lawyer and has licensed other products from CBS, says he asked CBS to give guidelines similar to what Lucasfilm has done for fans of Star Wars, but that CBS/Paramount haven't, in his opinion, "because of fear they are going to give up some rights."

Paramount and CBS gave us this joint statement after the posting of our original article: "Star Trek is a treasured franchise in which CBS and Paramount continue to produce new original content for its large universe of fans. The producers of Axanar are making a Star Trek picture they describe themselves as a fully professional independent Star Trek film. Their activity clearly violates our Star Trek copyrights, which, of course, we will continue to vigorously protect."

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