Star Trek Fan Film Guidelines: Speculation and Perspective

Star Trek Fan Film Guidelines: Speculation and Perspective

Star Trek Fan Film Guidelines: Speculation, Perspective

Star Trek Fan Film Guidelines: Speculation, Perspective: As the Axanar case continues, the question of fan film guidelines keeps coming up. Many fans have pointed to the Lucasfilm fan film contest rules as a beacon to light the way. But those rules have their own purpose, and were likely never intended to be used to manage regular (e. g. non-contest) unofficial productions.

Fans are understandably concerned, seeking to tiptoe through what could be a landmine of rules as they seek to avoid lawsuits, respect copyright, and just make the films they love. Speculation about what the rules could be has been wild. It’s time for some perspective.

The G & T Show Fan Film Guidelines: Speculation, Perspective

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In a bold move, Alec Peters, producer of Star Trek: Axanar, recently created a list of proposed fan film guidelines (Note: we are attempting to get these from a more direct source, and we understand the rules may even have been modified since the writing of this blog post), which, if adopted, would govern future Star Trek fan film production.

As many Star Trek fans are aware, Axanar and Peters himself were sued by CBS and Paramount Pictures for copyright infringement. There are several blog posts on this matter and they can be found here. The case is reportedly in the midst of settlement negotiations. However, because it is an ongoing open legal case, the lawsuit continues and the parties continue to file documents with the court as a matter of public record.

Traditionally, social norms within fandom have kept fan fiction and fan films “in check” through self policing with unspoken but well-known common sense rules such as not profiting from the story, giving attribution to the IP owner, and not passing work off as “professional” or somehow officially approved.

Previously, CBS and Paramount Pictures have largely ignored fan films and fan fiction. Including Star Trek, it’s historically been rare for IP owners to take any kind of legal action or to lay down guidelines for fans. If they do have policies in place, they’ve often been unstated and unverifiable. The specific reasons for this silence are unknown, but it’s a good guess that they likely relate to practical matters such as the difficulty in tracking down every single person they feel is infringing on their copyright. The cost of taking legal action could also exceed the level of harm done to the copyright holder; this is another probable reason.

Also, there’s the social norm of conformity to consider. Conformity is what has kept fandom in check until now, but it also seems to have been working among IP owners. if there’s a general norm of tolerance for fan works among IP owners, then a particular owner who takes action against fan works risks standing out as being particularly intolerant, which has been seen in other fandoms like Harry Potter. Basically, it’s human nature to look at what others are doing and follow suit rather risk public disapproval. Until now, this seems to have also been the case at CBS and Paramount.

Axanar’s Take

Axanar has been a game-changer in that social pressure has not reigned in its producer to conform to the norms prohibiting profit and maintaining a DIY spirit. Not only have CBS and Paramount taken legal action against Alec Peters and Axanar, they have also said that rules for fan films will be forthcoming. While this is a win for those with aspirations to make fan films because it’s a clear indication that CBS/Paramount will allow the practice to continue, there are those who worry about the potentially constraining nature of those rules. Many have pointed to the Star Wars fan film contest rules as a baseline for speculation, but it’s a false comparison at best – the logistics of running a contest dictate the form and language of Lucasfilm’s rules, and they are not necessarily appropriate for day-to-day regulation of fan activities.

To that end, it is our understanding that Peters has preemptively sent a list of proposed guidelines to CBS, which are as follows:

  1. There must be the following disclaimer at the end of each episode and in all promotional and marketing materials, on all fan production websites:

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.

  1. Fan productions may not sell, or give away as perks, any item with a Star Trek mark, logos or character, including, but not limited to, the words “Star Trek,” the Enterprise insignia chevron, images of the U.S.S. Enterprise, or any Star Trek trademark.
  2. Fan Productions may not use Kickstarter, Indiegogo, or any other commercial crowdfunding platform to raise money.
  3. Fan productions may take donations, but all donations must go to the production of the fan film and may not be used to pay any of the principals.
  4. Fan Productions may pay professional cast and crew for their time working on the production.
  5. If a production uses a SAG member, it must become a SAG New Media Signatory.
  6. Finished fan films may be no longer than 50 minutes in length, the approximate duration of TOS episodes.

The first two items on Peters’s list are derived from the social norms already in place within fandom. Visit any fan fiction archive and there will likely be a disclaimer prefacing a story giving attribution to the IP owner and denying any kind of official permission. It will also include some kind of statement stating that no money was made from the endeavor. If Peters had followed those common-sense guidelines, it’s likely he wouldn’t be in a legal tangle with CBS now.

A Comparison to Lucasfilm’s Rules

Much of the speculation about what CBS’s guidelines will actually look like has been based on Lucasfilm’s rules for Star Wars fan films. What’s important to remember is that those rules serve a completely different purpose than what CBS has in mind. One of the points Star Trek fans often reference is the fact that the Star Wars contest limits entries to five minutes. When we consider that the contest is likely to receive hundreds (if not thousands) of entries, and that judges have to find time to watch them all, a five-minute running time limit makes perfect sense in that limited context. Not so much for everyday life in fandom. We’ve read some fan posts that speculate that there will be a five or ten minute limit handed down for Paramount, but given their prior history of tolerance, it’s doubtful that it will be that harsh. If there is a running time restriction, it will likely be something that is NOT the same as an episode (as in Peters’s proposal) or a feature film. Since fair use exception to copyright is concerned with how derivative a secondary work is and, by extension, how easily it can be confused with the primary work, it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see them hand down a time limit of, say, 35-40 minutes. This is, of course, assuming they care about that at all.

It’s a given that CBS cares most about the money changing hands, and whose pockets it goes into. It wouldn’t be at all surprising to see CBS guidelines prohibiting or curtailing crowd funding. Putting aside the fact that we’ve seen all too clearly how easily it can be abused, there is also the fact that crowd funding services such as Kickstarter and IndieGoGo take a percentage of funds raised. In the case of funding a fan film based on Star Trek, it follows that the crowd funding service is profiting from someone else’s intellectual property, albeit indirectly. It’s understandable why CBS may be upset by that.

As for the points Peters raises about professional cast and crew, we have a question (and we’re sure CBS does, too): Is it even a FAN film at that point? As  fanfic writers who take pride in our work, we can certainly understand wanting to approach a project – even one for personal pleasure – with professional sensibilities. It is, after all, our (pen) names attached to our stories, and we prefer a favorable reputation in the fandom. However, what if we were to outsource professional ghost writers and editors? Chances are you’d ended up reading a very shiny, polished story. But is that the point?, when it’s not only not all our own work any more, but work we PAID to have done? Peters has the right idea that CBS would want to regulate this, but his suggestions seem to be self-serving. Enlisting your friends to act in your passion project for free because it’s fun costs substantially less than hiring actors. Media production students at the nearby college need internships and experience, and if you don’t know how to do the work yourself, they do. They just need more practice.

It remains to be seen what, exactly, CBS and Paramount come up with. Whatever shape the guidelines take, their repercussions could possibly extend into other forms of fan production such as fan fiction, as well as start a trend among other IP owners.  We’ll keep you posted on developments as we try to follow all proposed fan film guidelines with speculation and, hopefully, some perspective.

Written with Janet Gershen-Siegel

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Shanna Gilkeson

Ph.D Student; Graduate Teaching Assistant at Bowling Green State University
"Non traditional" media and communication student specializing in fandom studies and gender representation in TV and film. Lifelong Trekkie interested in the participatory side of the fandom, particularly fan fiction.

When not teaching and studying, I spend my time on my cats and my freshwater aquariums. I also enjoy gardening. Other media interests include Star Wars, Orphan Black, the Walking Dead franchise, the Addams Family and the Monkees.
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Latest posts by Shanna Gilkeson (see all)

Shanna Gilkeson

"Non traditional" media and communication student specializing in fandom studies and gender representation in TV and film. Lifelong Trekkie interested in the participatory side of the fandom, particularly fan fiction. When not teaching and studying, I spend my time on my cats and my freshwater aquariums. I also enjoy gardening. Other media interests include Star Wars, Orphan Black, the Walking Dead franchise, the Addams Family and the Monkees.


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