Star Trek Fan Film Boldly Going Before a Jury

On January 3, 2017, Judge R. Gary Klausner of the United States District Court for the Central District of California issued a ruling in a copyright infringement case regarding the science fiction franchise Star Trek. The plaintiffs, Paramount Pictures Corporation and CBS Studios, Inc., which own the copyrights to Star Trek, sued the defendants, Axanar Productions and its president Alec Peters, alleging copyright infringement, contributory copyright infringement, and vicarious copyright infringement. The court denied both the plaintiffs’ motion for partial summary judgment as to liability and injunctive relief and the defendants’ motion for summary judgment.

The plaintiffs’ copyright infringement claims arise out of the defendants' creation of a short film entitled Star Trek: Prelude to Axanar and a fan film entitled Axanar (collectively Axanar Works). The plaintiffs allege the defendants copied numerous elements from the Star Trek Copyrighted Works.

The court rejected the defendants’ argument that the plaintiffs’ claims regarding the Axanar movie are premature because the film is not completed.

The court found that the Axanar Works have objective substantial similarity to the Star Trek Copyrighted Works. The jury would determine the issue of subjective substantial similarity.

Applying an objective extrinsic test, the court found that found that defendants used copyrighted-protected elements in the Axanar Works. It rejected the defendants’ argument that characters and species used in the Axanar Works are not subject to copyright protection. Defendants used and referenced so many distinctive elements from the Star Trek universe that the Axanar Works invoke Star Trek in the minds of viewers. In spite of defendants’ new story, their extensive use of elements from the Star Trek Works can constitute infringement.

In finding that the defendants are not entitled to a fair use defense, the court applied a four-factor test: (1) The purpose and character of the infringing use; (2) The nature of the copyrighted work; (3) The amount and substantiality of the portion used; (4) The effect of the use upon the potential market. The court found that all four factors weigh in favor of the plaintiffs.

Regarding the issue of willfulness, defendant Peters’ actions demonstrated a respect of plaintiffs’ intellectual property making a finding of willfulness on summary judgment inappropriate. Peters’ belief that the Axanar Works were noncommercial fan films in light of his understanding that CBS would tolerate such films creates an issue of his state of mind that a jury must adjudicate.

The court could not rule on the plaintiffs’ request for declaratory and injunctive relief.  Plaintiffs would have to motion the court for such relief if the jury were to find subjective substantial similarity.The court left the issues of subjective substantial similarity and willfulness for the jury to determine. Findings of direct, contributory, and vicarious copyright infringement would be contingent upon the jury’s finding of subjective substantial similarity.

The above January 3, 2017 ruling is unreported.  However, Lexis subscribers can access a prior reported opinion at: Paramount Pictures Corp. v. Axanar Prods., 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 71651 (C.D. Cal. May 9, 2016) and Lexis Advance subscribers may access the prior opinion at: Paramount Pictures Corp. v. Axanar Prods., 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 71651, 118 U.S.P.Q.2D (BNA) 1600, Copy. L. Rep. (CCH) P30,924, 44 Media L. Rep. 1733 (C.D. Cal. May 9, 2016)

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