Court Boldly Allows Jury to Decide Fate of Star Trek Fan Film

By George Khoury, Esq. on January 17, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The newest Star Trek film, which is making headlines due to an active lawsuit headed for trial in a few short weeks, has an inauspicious back story. First-off, it should be noted that the most recent Star Trek film is not official, nor is it licensed by the original creators. The film was created by a fan who assembled a professional production company and crowd-sourced nearly a million dollars.

Let's just say, this isn't your run of the mill fan fiction. The 20 minute teaser to the film, Prelude to Axanar, has nearly 3 million views on YouTube, and clearly has a level of production quality beyond what is generally expected from a fan fiction produced work. In fact, the whole production, with movie website and all, seems a little to professional to be categorized as a work of fan fiction at all, but it is exactly that.

Axanar's Fate in the Hands of the Jury

In the case of the Star Trek fan fiction, the court, in denying competing motions for summary judgment shortly after the beginning of this year, is set to allow a jury to decide whether the fan fiction infringes upon Star Trek copyrights.

The court ruled that "the copyright infringement claim can live long and prosper if the Axanar Works are substantially similar to the Star Trek Copyrighted Works." It will be up to a jury to decide whether the fan fiction piece is "substantially similar," which is a question of fact for a jury, not a judge to decide (juries decide the facts, judges decide the law). If a jury finds that they are, then Axanar will be found to violate Star Trek's copyright.

When a person creates a story, characters, a setting, and other elements of a story, those individual elements, as well as the elements taken together, can be protected by copyright laws. There is generally a rather distinct line when it comes to violating copyrights that fan fiction creators tend to just completely ignore, and for good reason. Under copyright laws, most, if not all fan fiction, violates the original creators' rights.

Copyright laws don't just protect the actual words of an author, but also the ideas and concepts contained in an author's work. Fan fiction, at its core, with the exception of parody works, are derivative works meant to extend the original experience, which are clear violations of copyright.

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