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IRIS 2017-2:1/30

United States

Jury must decide whether Star Trek fan film infringed copyright

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Gianna Iacino

Institute of European Media Law (EMR), Saarbrücken/Brussels

On 3 January 2017, the U.S. District Court of the Central District of California decided that a jury should decide whether a Star Trek fan film has subjective substantial similarity to the Star Trek franchise and therefore infringes copyright (case no. 2:15-CV-09938-RGK-E).

The film producer Paramount Pictures Corporation and TV broadcaster CBS Studios Inc. own the copyright to the Star Trek science fiction franchise. The defendant used a crowdfunding campaign to raise money to set up Axanar Productions Inc. in order to produce a 20-minute Star Trek fan film, “Star Trek - Prelude to Axanar”, which was released on YouTube. The plaintiffs believed the release of the film infringed their copyright and applied for a summary judgment.

In the case, which is still ongoing, the court ruled that a jury should decide whether an ordinary, reasonable person would find the fan film substantially similar to previous Star Trek films and television series. It noted that the fan film bore strong similarities with the franchise, that the action took place in the same fictitious settings such as the planets Axanar, Qo’nos and Vulkan, and involved the same fictitious alien species, i.e. Klingons and Vulkans. The defendants had deliberately introduced these similarities because they had wanted to create an authentic and independent Star Trek film that stayed true to the original. However, in order for copyright to be breached, it had to be determined that an ordinary, reasonable person would find the total concept and the feel of the works to be substantially similar (the so-called ‘intrinsic test’). In any case, the court found that this question was best left to a jury.

In the court’s opinion, the defendants were not entitled to a fair use defence, so the outcome of the case depended on the jury’s decision.

District Court of California, decision of 3 January 2017 (case no. 2:15-CV-09938-RGK-E) EN