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Later this year, Star Trek will celebrate its 50th birthday. Before that happens, though, Paramount and CBS are being challenged to provide more ownership information about their franchise as well as discuss the nuances of the multiple television series and the many films that have resulted from Captain James T. Kirk’s original five-year mission aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise.
This is happening because Alec Peters and other Star Trek fans put in motion a studio-quality film titled Axanar with money raised from Kickstarter. In reaction, Paramount and CBS brought a lawsuit in December alleging that the producers of this crowdfunded movie were “using innumerable copyrighted elements of Star Trek, including its settings, characters, species, and themes.”
But according to a court filing on Monday by the defendants, that’s nowhere near enough to survive dismissal.
The first thing that the defendants request is more specificity about which of the “thousands” of copyrights relating to Star Trek episodes and films are being infringed — and how.
Taking issue with a complaint that lumps the entire Star Trek universe together, the dismissal motion points out that the original series featured a certain adventure aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise — one involving fictitious species such as the Vulcans and the Klingons — whereas The Next Generation had new captain (Jean-Luc Picard) and “revealed a universe with previously unexplored dimensions.”
The defendants also nod to new characters, sets and plots in Voyager and Deep Space Nine and the various films (including the upcoming series and film) to arrive at the argument that Paramount and CBS aren’t doing an adequate job recognizing the vast differences between the films and television episodes nor meeting minimum pleading standards. Producers of the crowdfunded film argue they shouldn’t be left guessing about what they’ve infringed nor should they be required to sift through each movie and TV episode to determine the claims against them.
“Plaintiffs do not allege that Defendants are engaged in wholesale copying of each Star Trek motion picture and television episode, or even that Defendants lift substantial material from each of Plaintiffs’ alleged works,” states the motion. “Plaintiffs’ conclusory allegations do little to put Defendants on adequate notice of the claims against them.”
The lawsuit is also being challenged on a second ground.
The defendants want Paramount and CBS to do a much better job explaining their ownership claims over the Star Trek franchise which was first shown on NBC and eventually became tangled in the Sumner Redstone media empire. Paramount took control of Star Trek from Lucille Ball’s Desilu in the late 1960s. A couple decades later, Paramount was acquired by Viacom, which then merged with CBS, which then separated from each other. Copyright registrations and assignments now govern ownership on a broad level, but defendants demand more information about who-owns-what.
“Which Plaintiff owns which alleged copyrights is critical to Defendants’ investigation into Plaintiffs’ claims, as it could be that the only works that Plaintiffs are actually alleging Defendants infringed are owned by one Plaintiff as opposed to the other,” states the motion. “Plaintiffs’ joint ownership allegation is not plausible in light of the contradicting information in the Complaint regarding assignment, presenting another ground upon which dismissal is proper.”
Lastly, and certainly of significant legal importance, because the crowdfunded film hasn’t actually been made yet, the lawsuit is being flagged as “premature, unripe and would constitute an impermissible prior restraint on speech.”
This line of attack has come up in prior copyright lawsuits over other franchises. For instance, two years ago, when rights-holders of James Bond sued Universal Studios over Section 6 — a film project about the early days of the U.K.’s spy agency MI6 — Universal argued that it was in the process of changing a screenplay that would remove any material that might arguably be infringing. A judge denied the dismissal motion — and the case was later settled.
There are other cases, though, that stand for the proposition that since expression and not ideas are what’s copyrightable, plaintiffs shouldn’t be allowed to sue before a court can actually see the allegedly infringing work in question.
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.”
But the defendants say there are multiple versions of the script, still being revised and rewritten.
As the defendants, represented by attorneys at Winston & Strawn, put it, “Until the film has been completed, the Court will not be able to compare Defendants’ film with the relevant Star Trek films and episodes at issue to determine whether the themes, mood, setting, pace, plot and characters are substantially similar. Moreover, to the extent any of the elements Plaintiffs are complaining about are actually protectable, Defendants intend to vigorously defend their use (if any) as a fair use. Without a film, the Court cannot evaluate the purpose and character of Defendants’ film, whether it is transformative, or a parody, and the amount and substantiality taken (if any). Similarly, the Court will not be able to evaluate any de minimis use defense.”
Here’s the full motion:
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