Axanar on List of 100 Cultural Moments of Past Decade

But io9’s Cultural Retrospective Gets Most Things About the Lawsuit Wrong

ANALYSIS

By Carlos Pedraza
AxaMonitor editor
January 18, 2018

As part of its 10th anniversary, science fiction news site io9 offered 100 events that had the most impact on pop culture since the site went online on January 2, 2008.

The copyright infringement lawsuit against what began as a Star Trek fan film ranked No. 54 on the list, but the site got most things wrong about the case in its description: The eight-sentence io9 entry featured at least five factual errors.

Axanar Fact Check

Axanar’s entry on io9’s list is titled, “The legal fight between CBS and the Star Trek fan film Axanar comes to a very strange end.” The following are the facts io9 got wrong.

Documentary Format

WRONG io9 incorrectly described the feature-length Axanar as a documentary-style movie, like its preview trailer, Prelude to Axanar.

In its first sentence io9 described Axanar this way:

Axanar, a lavish fan film aiming to offer a documentary-style look at the legendary career of early Starfleet captain Garth of Izar.1)

The Axanar feature was never planned as a documentary-style film. The leaked 2015 script demonstrated Axanar was a traditional fictional narrative.

io9 confused the 20-minute short Prelude to Axanar with the feature. Prelude was produced to drive two successful crowdfunding campaigns, raising $1.2 million.

Budget

While io9 correctly reported Axanar’s fundraising prowess, the results — even before the lawsuit — came nowhere near raising what the “lavish fan film” required for production, nearly $2 million. Moreover, Axanar producer Alec Peters diverted nearly three-quarters of a million dollars to build a commercial studio for rental and future projects.

Burdened by a three-year studio lease Axanar would have only needed for a fraction of that time, Peters lost the facility when the last of fans’ money ran out. Not a single frame of Axanar was ever shot in the studio.

FAIR WARNING As published in The Wrap, CBS in fact warned Axanar about possible legal action months before it ended up filing its copyright lawsuit.

'Out of Nowhere'

Next, io9 incorrectly cited the chain of events leading to the copyright lawsuit:

Then seemingly out of nowhere, CBS ordered Axanar shut down, despite alleged previous assurances to its director that the fan film would escape legal troubles.2)

According to court records, CBS never ordered Axanar shut down, even during the lawsuit, as was pointed out by the judge in the case. While it did file a suit, it never sought a temporary injunction against production of the film during the course of the case.

In fact, CBS had never provided the assurances against legal action that io9 claimed. CBS understood that doing so could compromise control over their own intellectual property. As for coming “seemingly out of nowhere,” CBS had actually issued a warning about possible legal action months before filing suit.

In August 2015, following a sit-down between Peters and two CBS executives, CBS outlined the problems it had with Peters in a statement to the entertainment news site, The Wrap:

« CBS has not authorized, sanctioned or licensed this project in any way, and this has been communicated to those involved. We continue to object to professional commercial ventures trading off our property rights and are considering further options to protect these rights.» CBS’ Warning Four Months Before Filing Suit

Axanar producer Alec Peters

'Trading Off Our Property Rights'

The “professional commercial venture” Peters was engaged in was the now-abandoned studio he was building with fans’ money rather than producing Axanar, as well as an online merchandise operation. Just weeks after CBS’ warning, in an interview on the Chicks Who Script podcast, Peters scoffed at the idea CBS would sue him, and went on to describe his real goal:

The studio is the endgame. The idea is we create a studio that we can then [use to] produce our own original content, our own movies. … The idea is to produce our own original content.3)

Mandatory Guidelines?

io9 went on to describe the fan film guidelines CBS announced in June 2016 in the middle of the Axanar lawsuit:

CBS Vice President John Van Citters
CBS announced official, mandatory guidelines for all future Star Trek fan films that were complex and incredibly restrictive.4)

While the guidelines were “official” in the sense that they came from the owner of Star Trek, the fact they were called guidelines, rather than rules, argues against io9’s characterization of them as “mandatory.” In explaining the guidelines on the Engage podcast, CBS vice president John Van Citters said:

These are guidelines. They are intended to be something that gives structure, that gives people the limits under which they can operate in. … “Here’s what you can do to keep yourself as a non-commercial entity and respect the professional Star Trek that we are working on, and hopefully have a great deal of fun.”

In that interview, Van Citters emphasized CBS didn’t plan to actively police fan films’ adherence to the guidelines.

Fan Films Flourish

The extent to which the guidelines are complex and restrictive is, of course, a matter of interpretation, though CBS did not move to enforce them with any other fan production until March 31, 2018, the film Star Trek: Temporal Anomaly. Moreover, the complexity and restrictiveness failed to deter the production of Star Trek fan films since the guidelines’ announcement, as was pointed out even by Axanar apologist Jonathan Lane on his blog, Fan Film Factor:

2017 was a BIG year for Star Trek fan films … possibly one of THE biggest! And that’s kinda funny considering how many people told me that the fan film guidelines would spell certain doom for Trek fan films. Even I thought that at first! … I had faith that the genre would continue despite the guidelines — perhaps even because of them (since they now gave Trekkers official permission from the studios to create their own productions…albeit within some overly-strict limits).5)

Lawsuit Length

io9’s Axanar entry continued its stream of inaccuracies by overstating the length of the copyright case:

Two years after it all began, CBS and Axanar finally settled their dispute in January of 2017.6)

CBS/Paramount filed their copyright infringement lawsuit against Peters and Axanar on December 29, 2015. The case settled on January 20, 2017 — just less than 13 months in length, nowhere near two years.

'Yet to be Released'

The settlement allowed Axanar to be produced but under severe restrictions — no crowdfunding, 30 minutes maximum, no one gets paid. Since the settlement, little progress has been made to getting the short film, nicknamed Axanar Lite, into production. io9’s article described Axanar Lite this way:

[The settlement resulted] in a radically cut-down version of the film—which has yet to be released—following CBS’s rules.7)

By describing the short film as “yet to be released” io9 implied Axanar Lite has since been produced. It has not. Peters spent all the fans’ money, leaving nothing for production of even the short film. “Yet to be produced” would have better described the actual status of the project.

Worse Off?

Finally, io9 concluded the Axanar case set a “potentially disconcerting precedent for other properties and their relationship with fan-made material.”

Given that no other major studio sanctions fan-made projects, it’s unclear what precedent was set by the case, other than the judge’s finding that fans like Peters cannot profit from intellectual property they don’t own.

In fact, as pointed out by CBS’ Van Citters, the guidelines actually provide a safe harbor for fan producers against being sued by CBS for copyright infringement, marking the first time a major copyright holder has ever given any guidelines for unfettered use of a major piece of its intellectual property with just guidelines — a more accurate and significant cultural moment than that portrayed by io9.

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