Judge Refuses to Dismiss Lawsuit Over Crowdfunded 'Star Trek' Film

The use of Klingon — a language allegedly not copyrightable — in a not-yet-produced feature film can't doom this lawsuit.
NBC/Photofest

A California federal judge is allowing Paramount Pictures and CBS to boldly go where no Star Trek rights holder has gone before.

The two studios are suing over Star Trek: Prelude to Axanar, a short film, as well as Axanar, a proposed feature-length picture that's been raising money on Kickstarter and other crowdfunding platforms. In response to the lawsuit, Alec Peters' Axanar Productions demanded more specificity about what copyrighted elements were actually infringed. The plaintiffs then amended the complaint, which drew ridicule from an attempt to take ownership of everything from "pointy ears" to the Klingon language.

Nevertheless, on Tuesday, U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner rejected a motion to dismiss.

"The Court finds the Complaint sufficiently provides Defendants notice of the allegedly infringing elements at issue," writes Klausner. "For example, Plaintiffs allege that the Starship U.S.S. Enterprise, which first appears in the pilot episodes of The Original Series and is consistently portrayed throughout the franchise’s episodes and films, appears in Defendants’ Prelude to Axanar."

The judge's opinion (read in full here) is noteworthy in oh-so-many ways.

For example, the defendant argued that a potential fan film that hasn't been produced yet makes for a premature lawsuit. The fact that many of the allegations came on "information and belief" was knocked as insufficient for a lawsuit over copyright, which protects expression, not ideas.

Klausner responds that the allegations "are bolstered by specific facts and many allegations gleaned directly from comparing the works at issue and from Defendants’ public postings on social media," including a Facebook post from Peters of a "fully revised and locked script." The judge says at the pleading stage, taking allegations as true, a locked script is "plausible" and he "will be able to analyze substantial similarity based on the script and the already disseminated Vulcan Scene." As such, the mere script makes the lawsuit ripe for adjudication.

As for defendants' arguments of many non-protectable elements, including the gold shirts and triangular medals that Federation officers wear, the judge agrees with Paramount to not mistake the forest for the trees. The judge nods to a 9th Circuit holding (Funky Films, Inc. v. Time Warner Ent. Co.) that directs judges to “filter out and disregard the non-protectable elements in making [its] substantial similarity determination," but comes to the following determination anyway.

"When viewed in a vacuum, each of these elements may not individually be protectable by copyright," he writes. "Plaintiffs, however, do not seek to enforce their copyright in each of these elements individually. Rather, Plaintiffs’ copyright infringement claims are based on the Star Trek Copyrighted Works as a whole.... The Court finds it unnecessary to analyze whether the allegedly non-protectable elements of the Star Trek Copyrighted Works are eligible for copyright protection because Plaintiff describes these elements in the Complaint solely in an effort to demonstrate how the Axanar Works are substantially similar to the Star Trek Copyrighted Works."

The judge also notes in a separate ruling denying an amicus brief that he hasn't reached the issue of whether languages, and specifically Klingon, are copyrightable.

Klausner avoids Klingon, but he does come to a conclusion of potential importance in the era of crowdfunding.

In the lawsuit, Paramount and CBS made a vicarious infringement claim, meaning they had to allege facts to show how Axanar enjoyed a "direct financial benefit" from the allegedly pirated work. The plaintiffs pointed to the money being raised on Kickstarter and distribution of Prelude to Axanar on YouTube.

"Although it is unclear whether Defendants stand to earn a profit from the Axanar Works, realizing a profit is irrelevant to this analysis," writes the judge. "The Court can easily infer that by raising $1 million to produce the Axanar Works and disseminating the Axanar Works on Youtube.com, the allegedly infringing material 'acts as a ‘draw’ for customers' to watch Defendants’ films."

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