by Peter Decherney, CONTRIBUTOR
Paramount and CBS CBS -1.43% are suing the creators of a Star Trek fan film,Axanar, for copyright infringement. They claim that the film uses Star Trek characters, themes, and the invented Klingon language, among other elements. The use of Klingon aside, the case is less interesting for the copyright issues it raises than for the change in corporate strategy it signals.
Since the 1960s, Star Trek’s stewards have tolerated if not encouraged fan work. Star Trek creator Gene Rodenberry fed material to fans, and over the past half century the franchise has created space for fan films, writings, and performances at its regular conventions. If any franchise has flourished because of fan work, it is Star Trek.
Why is Axanar different? The project, which includes a short film, Prelude to Axanar, and has a longer multi-part movie in development, raised over $1.1 million from the crowdfunding websites Kickstarter and Indiegogo. Prelude to Axanar boasts high quality special effects and over 2 million views on YouTube. And similar trends in fundraising, production values, and audience interest are notable across the larger ecosystem of online fan work. Star Trek fandom has always been the canary in the larger coalmine of creative fan communities.
Star Trek fan work has reached what I describe in my book on the history of Hollywood as an Easy Rider moment. The history of Hollywood can be seen as a series of challenges to the studios from independent companies that pioneered new technologies or embraced new storytelling strategies and topics. Though Hollywood usually puts up initial resistance, the studios have always responded in ways that expanded their audience and profits.
The 1969 film Easy Rider is a paradigmatic example. Hollywood was content to let foreign and independent films dominate art houses in the 1950 and 1960s, addressing sex and politics in ways that seemed outside the scope of the studio system. But when Easy Rider, which was made for $360,000, grossed over $60 million, the studios took notice. They realized that they were ignoring a significant segment of the moviegoing audience, and they responded by making a structural change. Columbia Pictures acquired BBS, the company that madeEasy Rider, as a largely autonomous subsidiary. Hollywood benefited from the creative sensibilities of the independent company, and BBS operated with more stable funding and distribution. Other studios soon followed suit with satellites like Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope, which went on to make 1970s classics American Graffiti (1973) and Apocalypse Now (1979).
How has Hollywood reached another “Easy Rider” moment? And what is the structural change that will save the studios this time?
Clearly innovations in funding and technology have led to increased production of fan work and expanded its audience. But in the case of Star Trek, there are management issues as well. In 1994, Viacom VIAB -1.29% acquired the franchise when it bought Paramount. At first, Viacom threatened fan websites with cease and desist letters. But after an uproar, Viacom backed off, giving tacit approval to fans. Then in 2005, the only active Star Trek television series Enterprise went off the air. The same year, rights to the franchise were split between CBS, which got the television rights, and Paramount, which got the film rights. This created friction between the two companies, and official Star Trek production ground to a halt.
Fans filled the hole with dozens of noncommercial web series and movies. Surprisingly, many fan works lured cast and crew members from the official franchise, including Walter Koenig (Pavel Checkov), Nichelle Nichols (Lieutenant Uhura), and writer D.C. Fontana from the original 1960s series.
When Paramount rebooted the Star Trek franchise with two films directed byJ.J. Abrams (in 2009 and 2013), they created action blockbusters that had wide box office appeal but left fans of the older series cold.
The movies also deepened the tension between Paramount, which wanted to focus merchandising exclusively on the new series, and CBS, which still had a multi-million dollar a year business making action figures of Captain Janeway, Mr. Spock, and other classic characters. While the companies fought, fan films continued to proliferate.
Now, Paramount is preparing to release the third film in its rebooted series,Star Trek Beyond, and CBS has a new television series set to premiere on its streaming service, CBS All Access. Paramount and CBS have finally overcome their differences and teamed up. Unfortunately, they have decided to fight the unstoppable snowball of fan production rather than finding a strategy that would embrace fan work as part of an open (though still profitable) franchise. It seems that Hollywood needs another structural change.
There are already many attempts to include fans in the larger network of production. Fan writers regularly land jobs writing for television series or working for media companies. When the BBC released its latest Doctor Whoseason, for example, it featured a title sequence adapted from one a fan had posted online.
And there are many other models of hybrid media systems that incorporate rather than deny fans access to intellectual property. Amazon has created a platform called Kindle Worlds that sells fan fiction and shares revenue between publishers of the original works and fan writers. YouTube gives copyright holders the option of sharing advertising revenue when fan videos use their intellectual property. So in theory, when Star Trek fans create YouTube sensations, CBS and Paramount can profit as well.
These are exciting though limited experiments. Authors who write for Kindle Worlds are bound by the fairly restrictive creative parameters set by publishers. And copyright holders are generally silent about and often inconsistent in their YouTube policies, leaving fans with a guessing game.
If Axanar proves to be Hollywood’s latest Easy Rider moment, it remains to be seen which company will successfully find a structure that includes fan work in the ecosystem of Hollywood franchises. Star Trek—and Hollywood franchises more generally—have passively benefited from fan work in the past. Hopefully, CBS and Paramount will lead the way and embrace methods of actively incorporating fan labor and creativity.
Follow me on Twitter @pdecherney.
I write about Hollywood & copyright law, occasionally at the same time
I am a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, where I teach and write about the law’s impact on film and media. I’m a film historian by training, and my books include Hollywood: A Very Short Introduction and Hollywood’s Copyright Wars: From Edison to the Internet. I’ve been involved in the policy process in a number of ways including working briefly for a U.S. Senator, testifying before the Copyright Office, writing an amicus briefs, and serving as a State Department Arts Envoy to Myanmar. Follow me on twitter @pdecherney.
The author is a Forbes contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.