Continuing our series on copyright law, we turn to the matter of copyright infringement (a previous topic here, here, and here). An important subject for creative business people of all kinds, popular culture is often a prism through which we can examine the concepts fundamental to American copyright law. The underlying premise is simple: society benefits when authors are given a monopoly to exploit their works. Without such a monopoly, authors would have no incentive to unleash their creative genius to the public, since anyone could simply profit from the hard work of the author. As a consequence there would be no Superman, Harry Potter, To Kill a Mockingbird, or even Star Trek. That last endearing American work has now become the subject of an interesting copyright lawsuit pushing the boundaries of fan engagement and copyright ownership.
As The Hollywood Reporter discusses, some pretty die hard Star Trek fans obtained funding of over one million dollars through a crowdfunding site to create a professionally made Star Trek film about an arcane event in Star Trek lore alluded to but not actually shown in the Star Trek TV shows. Don’t ask me to explain the particular plot points, because I cannot–my knowledge simply extends to the eternal question, “Kirk or Picard?” (the answer is Picard, by the way). You might wonder (as this is an intellectual property blog) how it is that the producers thought they would get away with using the intellectual property of CBS and Paramount, and you’d be right to ask that question. For their part, the producers have asserted that they reasonably believed Paramount actively encouraged and would take no action against fan produced works, demonstrating a history of not enforcing their copyrights against this kind of material.
The producers were wrong.
Just in time for the Christmas season, Paramount and CBS–the owners of the underlying Star Trek copyrights–filed suit against the producers of this unauthorized production for copyright infringement. Copyright, after all, extends not just to fixed written creative expression (like movie scripts or particular films), but also can apply to defined characters, plot points, and fantasy universes, so long as they have distinctive elements. This principle is the backbone of the lawsuit–and its a solid basis upon which the rights holders can move forward. For their part, the producers of the film say they wish to try to reach an agreement, emphasizing the demand for a Star Trek film of this quality. That demand, of course, probably explains why Paramount is releasing the new feature film Star Trek: Beyond this summer. It also explains why Paramount has no interest in an unauthorized professionally produced film diluting the market.
There is little question Paramount and CBS should prevail in the suit. And if that happens…well, I suppose the producers might have some explaining to do to the crowdfunding investors that gave them over one million dollars to engage in copyright infringement.
If you’re interested in learning more, join us at our January Shark Bite as we take a look at the evolving law of copyright and, in particular, examine a number of fun infringement cases that have made their way to the news headlines in recent years.
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