Your STAR TREK Fan Films Are Now Legally In The Clear

Maybe. Let’s look at CBS & Paramount’s new guidelines to see how you can avoid getting your ass sued off.

Fan films. I had a phase where I was really into them. I was 12. Sadly my reach exceeded my grasp, and I never finished one. And though I don’t recall 20th Century Fox ever stepping in to shut down my early ‘80s backyard productions of either Empire Strikes Back With Kids or Fear and Loathing On The Planet Of The Apes, it’s a different ballgame in the Kickstarter age.

As the budgets go up on these things, professional quality fan productions with real money behind them have been feeling the legal heat. Studios have moved swiftly to crush overly solvent fans’ dreams with court orders to cease & desist dressing up like Spock and Kirk for fun and/or profit. Over the last few years, these grassroots Roddenberries have found themselves in lengthy, expensive legal battles to defend their right to explore familiar, not-new worlds, and to post that ish on YouTube.

But now CBS and Paramount are boldly going where no copyright law has gone before, and giving these cosplaying cats some breathing room. Recently JJ Abrams announced at a fan event that Paramount would be dropping its lawsuit against high-profile Star Trek fan project Axanar (not the only such fan project out there, but the one that was seemingly being made an example of during this dust-up).

And today, the folks who own Star Trek have released fan film guidelines for wannabe filmmakers to follow if they want to remain in the studios' good graces whilst playing space captain in their garage-built sets. I’m posting their entire set of guidelines below for discussion, because a studio laying ground rules for fans to create “reasonable fan fiction” is a kind of unprecedented new era of fandom, and it fascinates me!

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:

1. 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. (To me this reads as "go ahead, make your cute YouTube shorts, but don't try to fool anyone into thinking this is an actual episode of television."  As most of these fan films are already too long by half, this feels like a win all-around. - PN)

2. 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. (Not sure how this will go over; I suspect fans will be psyched to be able to include "STAR TREK" anywhere on the title screen, but that "FAN PRODUCTION" mandate is a little Scarlet Letterish. - PN)

3. 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. (This one is curious; it's common sense when creatng your own content, but what would CBS/Paramount's liability be here? Speculating, but it's the knd of language I'd put in if I were planning on acquiring these fan films for a home video release at some point. - PN)

4. 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. (Protecting the brand, sure, but this would be a step down for a lot of these fan films, whose attention to detail far exceeds Hot Topic's. - PN)

5. 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. (You know what that means - say goodbye to those Chekov and Uhura cameos that would occasionally turn up in these things. - PN)

6. 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. (For comparison: Axanar's budget is listed as just shy of $600,000. - PN)
  • 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.

7. 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. (This just feels like a big "fuck you" to Axel Braun, honestly. - PN)

8. 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.”

9. Creators of fan productions must not seek to register their works, nor any elements of the works, under copyright or trademark law. ("You don't own what you made. We very likely own what you made." - PN)

10. 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 essentially means they can come for these fan films at any time. Chilling! - PN)

I'd have added a clause prohibiting the use of shoddy handheld camera work on these things, because damn. Get a tripod, guys.

Anyway, that all sounds like a pretty raw deal! It limits the talent pool options on both sides of the prosumer camera, denies any chance to monetize the project, and puts a ceiling on fan filmmakers' resources. I guess they were kind of already doing that when they went down the road of making a fan film in the first place, but still, harsh to see it all spelled out like that. Most of these fan productions, including Axanar and the lovingly rendered example below, seemingly can't continue under these conditions. 

Where do you guys land on this topic? Should fan films be encouraged and facilitated by IP holders as an expression of fandom, or are you in the camp that thinks all this energy should be spent creating original content? 


Header photo by Bryan Pedrazzoli, courtesy of @JessicaLynnGonz.