by: Robert Wagner, intellectual property attorney at the Pittsburgh law firm of Picadio Sneath Miller & Norton, P.C. (Robert Wagner on G+)
Last week, Judge Klausner from the US District Court for the Central District of California denied a fan film producer’s motion to dismiss a copyright infringement lawsuit brought by Paramount Pictures and CBS Studio, which own the copyrights in the Star Trek franchise. The case present some interesting issues regarding the interplay between copyright holders and fans that attempt to create works inspired by or based off of more famous works. The case is pending in Los Angeles and is captioned Paramount Pictures Corp. v. Axanar Productions, Inc. (No. 2:15-cv-09938-RGK-E).
Star Trek is one of the most successful science fiction creations of the last fifty years. Created by Gene Roddenberry and first aired on television in 1966, Star Trek chronicles the adventures of humans and aliens in the future as they venture through space. The original television series has spawned numerous feature films and television series, in addition to creating a huge and devoted fan base. The fan base is noted, in particular, for recreating and reenacting characters and scenes from the franchise, as well as creating new works based on the characters and events portrayed in the television series and movies. This lawsuit arose out of one such effort by a group of fans to create a movie based on a scene from the original television series when Captain Kirk meets one of his heroes, Garth of Izar, and discusses Garth’s victory against the Klingons in the battle of Axanar. Defendants created a script, received funding through various sources, and released a short film based on the Battle of Axanar that is a preview of their anticipated longer film. Plaintiffs filed suit claiming that Defendants’ efforts violated numerous copyrights that they own in the Star Trek franchise.
Plaintiffs’ Amended Complaint
In plaintiffs’ amended complaint, they set forth numerous examples of what they contend are infringing features or elements of defendants’ work, which include such things as various characters, alien races, costumes, settings, starships, logos, plot points, dialogue, and themes, some of which are shown below (Anaxar on the left, and plaintiffs’ on the right).
Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss
Defendants moved to dismiss the lawsuit on various grounds–that plaintiffs had failed to provide sufficient notice of what actions constituted infringement, that Paramount lacked standing to sue, that the allegations were not sufficient under the Twombly standard, that the various elements identified by plaintiffs were not protectable, that the claims were premature because the film had not been released, and that plaintiffs’ efforts amount to impermissible prior restraint.
The Court rejected all of these arguments at this procedural stage, noting (with a nod to the Star Trek franchise) that “[a]lthough the Court declines to address whether Plaintiffs’ Claims will prosper at this time, the Court does find Plaintiffs’ claims will live long enough to survive Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss.”
Klingon Amicus Brief
One of the more interesting aspects to this case was an amicus brief filed by the Language Creation Society. In its amended complaint, plaintiffs asserted that the Klingon language itself was protected by copyright. The Language Creation Society argued that the copyright laws do not protect a language itself. The Judge did not address this point in the opinion on the motion to dismiss, but this issue is an interesting one presented in a novel form. The amicus brief is a particularly good read, as it is interspersed with quotes and phrases in the Klingon language.
The case is far from over, but it is an interesting window into the difficulties (both legal and otherwise) that a successful copyright owner faces in trying to creatively and economically control its works.
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