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New 'Star Trek' Fan-Fiction Guidelines Cause Rift in TV Fan Space-Time Continuum
June 27, 2016  | By Alex Strachan

Star Trek has been much in the news of late. The original Star Trek is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary while the feature film Star Trek Beyond, co-produced by J.J. Abrams and directed by Justin Lin, opens in movie theaters next month on July 22.

This past week, the Television Critics Association nominated the 1966 Gene Roddenberry original for the group’s prestigious Heritage Award, alongside such small-screen classics as The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Seinfeld.

Days ago, a trailer for the crowd-funded fan film Star Trek: Axanar (below, right) was unveiled amid an ongoing lawsuit over the project.

“Long have we watched the scourge of humanity spreading through space, daring to encroach upon our birthright,” the narrator, presumably a Klingon, intones in the Axanar trailer.

The biggest disturbance in the force that is Star Trek fandom, though, was Star Trek studio and rights-holders CBS and Paramount Pictures issuing an official set of legal guidelines for future fan projects, just this past week.

CBS/Paramount posted the list of instructions, titled “The Guidelines for Avoiding Objections” (which we've reprinted below), on the official Star Trek site StarTrek.com. It was a not-so-subtle reminder that everything about Star Trek, from the music to the costumes to Captain Kirk's way with women, is intellectual property.

And that property is owned and controlled by CBS and Paramount. (Star Trek originally aired from 1966-'69 on NBC, but NBC has no ownership stake in the series. Interestingly, the original Star Trek was the brainchild of the now defunct Desilu Productions, co-owned by small-screen legends Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball.)


"CBS and Paramount Pictures are big believers in reasonable fan fiction and fan creativity, and, in particular, want amateur fan filmmakers to showcase their passion for Star Trek.  Therefore, CBS and Paramount Pictures will not object to, or take legal action against, Star Trek fan productions that are non-professional and amateur and meet the following guidelines.

Guidelines for Avoiding Objections: (emphasis added throughout)

The fan production must be less than 15 minutes for a single self-contained story, or no more than 2 segments, episodes or parts, not to exceed 30 minutes total, with no additional seasons, episodes, parts, sequels or remakes.

The title of the fan production or any parts cannot include the name Star Trek. However, the title must contain a subtitle with the phrase: "A STAR TREK FAN PRODUCTION" in plain typeface. The fan production cannot use the term "official" in either its title or subtitle or in any marketing, promotions or social media for the fan production.

The content in the fan production must be original, not reproductions, recreations or clips from any Star Trek production. If non-Star Trek third party content is used, all necessary permissions for any third party content should be obtained in writing.

If the fan production uses commercially-available Star Trek uniforms, accessories, toys and props, these items must be official merchandise and not bootleg items or imitations of such commercially available products.

The fan production must be a real "fan" production, i.e., creators, actors and all other participants must be amateurs, cannot be compensated for their services, and cannot be currently or previously employed on any Star Trek series, films, production of DVDs or with any of CBS or Paramount Pictures' licensees.

The fan production must be non-commercial:

  • CBS and Paramount Pictures do not object to limited fundraising for the creation of a fan production, whether 1 or 2 segments and consistent with these guidelines, so long as the total amount does not exceed $50,000, including all platform fees, and when the $50,000 goal is reached, all fundraising must cease.
  • The fan production must only be exhibited or distributed on a no-charge basis and/or shared via streaming services without generating revenue.
  • The fan production cannot be distributed in a physical format such as DVD or Blu-ray.
  • The fan production cannot be used to derive advertising revenue including, but not limited to, through for example, the use of pre or post-roll advertising, click-through advertising banners, that is associated with the fan production.
  • No unlicensed Star Trek-related or fan production-related merchandise or services can be offered for sale or given away as premiums, perks or rewards or in connection with the fan production fundraising.
  • The fan production cannot derive revenue by selling or licensing fan-created production sets, props or costumes.

The fan production must be family friendly and suitable for public presentation. Videos must not include profanity, nudity, obscenity, pornography, depictions of drugs, alcohol, tobacco, or any harmful or illegal activity, or any material that is offensive, fraudulent, defamatory, libelous, disparaging, sexually explicit, threatening, hateful, or any other inappropriate content. The content of the fan production cannot violate any individual’s right of privacy.

The fan production must display the following disclaimer in the on-screen credits of the fan productions and on any marketing material including the fan production website or page hosting the fan production:

'Star Trek and all related marks, logos and characters are solely owned by CBS Studios Inc. This fan production is not endorsed by, sponsored by, nor affiliated with CBS, Paramount Pictures, or any other Star Trek franchise, and is a non-commercial fan-made film intended for recreational use. No commercial exhibition or distribution is permitted. No alleged independent rights will be asserted against CBS or Paramount Pictures.'

Creators of fan productions must not seek to register their works, nor any elements of the works, under copyright or trademark law.

Fan productions cannot create or imply any association or endorsement by CBS or Paramount Pictures.

CBS and Paramount Pictures reserve the right to revise, revoke and/or withdraw these guidelines at any time in their own discretion. These guidelines are not a license and do not constitute approval or authorization of any fan productions or a waiver of any rights that CBS or Paramount Pictures may have with respect to fan fiction created outside of these guidelines."

That line from the Axanar trailer, "daring to encroach on our birthright," could just as easily apply to the project itself — and for other surprisingly well-produced, polished fan films like Star Trek Continues, which just last month released its sixth full-length (42 minutes) episode, Come Not Between the Dragons, on YouTube.

The development of relatively low-cost, high-quality digital video cameras, coupled with technological breakthroughs in easy-to-use digital-imaging programs for home computer, have created a universe in which pretty much anyone can produce their own homemade film, for a tiny fraction of the cost of what even notoriously penny-pinching Roger Corman used to spend on even his most cheaply made B-movies from the '50s and '60s.

Star Trek's legions of fans have always shared a proprietary interest in all things Trek. It was the fans, after all, who revived Trek's fortunes after the original series was cancelled in 1969 after just three seasons, the victim of low ratings, high production costs and the defection of several of its original writer-producers, including Roddenberry himself.

Science-fiction devotees have always been the most ardent supporters of genre films, and the most creative and energetic. Star Trek in particular prompted a wave of fan-written short stories, novellas and short novels, leading to a whole new genre of writing — fan fiction, or fanfic.

Fans were no longer content to be passive viewers. They wanted to actively participate.

Few if any of these efforts, though, were moneymaking enterprises — no pun intended.

Paramount Pictures, the rights holder at the time (before CBS and Paramount came under the same corporate umbrella), looked the other way on copyright infringement, for the most part. There was an unofficial, unspoken agreement between fan and studio. Fans understood they were not to compete with legitimate studio efforts, or take bread out of the mouths of Star Trek's creators, producers and actors; the studio, for its part, was only too happy to encourage fans’ enthusiasm in exchange for free publicity, and the old Hollywood adage that all publicity is good publicity — especially when it’s free.

Times, and technology, have changed, though.

Now, Star Trek Continues episodes like Pilgrim of Eternity and Divided We Stand can look every bit as polished as the 1966 original, right down to the styrofoam boulders, psychedelic '60s colors and Fred Steiner-esque music. Bit players from the original series and its subsequent spin-offs, sequels, prequels and movie incarnations — Nichelle Nichols, Walter Koenig, George Takei, Tim Russ, Robert Picardo and others — are turning up in prominent roles in fan productions. Axanar was crowdfunded in large part through sites like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo.

The dollar figures have been growing, even as the fan productions themselves have become better looking. What once seemed like a harmless, quaint expression of fans’ devotion — an homage to an old love — is now something else entirely.

CBS and Paramount are walking a narrow line. On the one hand, they need to protect their intellectual property, arguably one of the most valuable assets in film and television, right up there with Star Wars, Harry Potter, James Bond and Disney’s fairy-tale characters.

On the other hand, they need to be mindful not to alienate their core group of fans, who include some of the most ardent, creative — and talented — followers of any franchise in the history of popular entertainment.

One thing is certain. The guidelines, a list of 10 separate instructions, complete with sections and subsections, caused a ripple of resentment in the fan community, judging from the early reaction on Twitter, Facebook and on sites like Screen Rant.

"In other words," one disgruntled fan posted on Rolling Stone's site, "'Don’t do anything that might be better than what we can do, with less money and less talent.'"

The guidelines are strict, and leave little room to wiggle. Among the edicts, fan productions are not to exceed 15 minutes in length for a single, self-contained story, or 30 minutes for "no more than two segments, episodes or parts."

But wait, there’s more.

"No additonal seasons, episodes, parts, sequels or remakes" will be allowed. The words "Star Trek" are not to appear in the title, but the words "A Star Trek Fan Production" must be used as a subtitle.

Fan productions cannot include anyone who has worked on an official Star Trek film or TV series, either in front of or behind the camera. They cannot raise more than $50,000 from crowdfunding or any other source, for a single, individual production.

The guidelines do allow the use of original costumes, interestingly enough, provided they’re official merchandise, "and not bootleg items or imitations of commercially available products."

The final production must be shared on a "no-charge basis" — meaning, for free. Star Trek Continues (left) is accessible to anyone who accesses YouTube; Continues’ official website opens with a statement that everything having to do with Star Trek is "solely owned by CBS Studios, Inc." and that Star Trek Continues itself is "non-commercial" and "intended for recreational use."

In exchange, CBS and Paramount agree not to object to or take legal action against any non-professional or amateur fan productions.

The studios filed the Axanar copyright infringement suit in December — this, after the fan producers raised more than $1 million through various crowdfunding campaigns.

BuzzFeed reported this past week that talks between the two sides are ongoing and that both sides "continue to be hopeful" that they will reach a settlement shortly.

The controversy hardly rises to the level of a Supreme Court decision — yet — but it does have the potential to establish a precedent for future fan projects of all kinds. The X-Files is just one example of another popular series that has prompted a wave of fan fiction.

The original Star Trek series had its own fun with the idea of intellectual property. In a third-season episode, "Whom Gods Destroy," written by occasional Have Gun, Will Travel and All in the Family scriptwriter Lee Erwin, the inmates of a mental health facility are running the asylum. An addled young woman, played by Yvonne Craig, shows off her gift for poetry to the inmates’ leader, Garth of Izar, a former starship captain played by Steve Ihnat.

"Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?" she intones. "Thou art more lovely and temperate / Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May / And summer’s lease hath all..."

"You wrote that?" Garth cries.

"Yesterday, as a matter of fact," she replies.

"It was written by an Earthman named Shakespeare a long time ago," he says pointedly.

"Which does not alter the fact that I wrote it again yesterday," she replies without missing a beat.

These are the stories of the Starship Enterprise — boldly going into court where so many intellectual properties have gone before.

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