Do Star Trek Fans Just Not Understand Copyright?

Clarification: There’s been a misunderstanding to the effect that I felt Star Trek: Axanar had derived their story from my work. That is not the case. The fan film referenced below, in which some fans have noticed similarities to my novel, is not Axanar.

Intellectual Property–copyright–is the topic at hand right now in Star Trek circles. The high profile Axanar team has been hit with a lawsuit for violating CBS’s copyright in making an independent Star Trek film. Meanwhile, on one of the Trek-related bulletin boards, some fans have noticed similarities between a fan film and my 2006 novel Taken Liberty. I blogged about those similarities last year, saying I saw several points of plot overlap between the film and my book. Several of those commenting on the topic had read my blog. Apparently, not many had read my book.

The discussions on both topics have shown that a startling amount of ignorance and irrational thinking pervades modern Star Trek fandom, and that many fans have no concept of the law, much less of right and wrong.

I wasn’t surprised when many people who hadn’t read my book were comfortable assuming that the similarities were mere coincidence. They don’t know all the facts, and it’s nicer to assume that one guy didn’t just steal another guy’s work and take the credit. But I was profoundly shocked by what seemed to be the majority argument–that if there was plagiarism that that was okay.

Now I’m not saying one way or another on the question of my being plagiarized. Maybe my story consciously or unconsciously influenced their film. Maybe it was all coincidence. I have my opinion, but it really doesn’t matter for this discussion. What matters is that a lot of people said they were okay with the theft of intellectual property.

The reasons for it being “okay” were many, and I’d like to discuss a few of them.

Maybe Taken Liberty was inspired by Star Trek, so that means it’s fair game for a Star Trek fan film. Uh… yeah. TL was inspired by Star Trek. Got news for you, kids. 99% of science fiction published or produced since 1966 was inspired by Star Trek. “Inspired” does not mean “stolen.” It means that Star Trek moved those creators to create their works, and had a profound influence on how those works turned out. You can see the influence of Star Trek in the works of Lois McMaster Bujold, Alan Dean Foster, David Gerrold and many others. You can also see the influences of Robert A. Heinlein and countless other creators. Star Trek itself was influenced by the works of authors like Edmund Hamilton and Jack Williamson, and by films like Forbidden Planet. Starships, Space Navies, Warp Speed, Matter Transporters, Ray Guns–all concepts developed in earlier works. Some authors even wrote Star Trek stories and then adapted them into original concepts. That is inspiration. It is not plagiarism. Those authors did not use Star Trek’s name, characters or stories to sell their works. It is not, therefore, okay for anyone else to take their stories and claim them as their own.

For that matter, George Lucas developed Star Wars because he couldn’t get the rights to Flash Gordon. Marvel Comics created a series called Seeker 3000 because they couldn’t get the rights to Star Trek. Creating a work that will be enjoyed by fans of someone else’s work is not plagiarism. How many SF writers of my generation wanted to be “The next Robert A. Heinlein?” We didn’t want to steal his work. We wanted to create something that felt like what he created, and that people would enjoy as much as we enjoyed his work.

But Heinlein’s estate would not be entitled to publish and profit off of our books because they were inspired by Heinlein. The owners of Flash Gordon are not entitled to make Star Wars films. And neither pro nor fan Star Trek creators are entitled to use the works of authors inspired by Star Trek.

Lots of modern works are based on Shakespeare plays, so it’s okay to make an adaptation of any story that’s been published. Yep, lots of works are based on the Bard. West Side Story, The Lion King, the aforementioned Forbidden Planet. Shakespeare is in the public domain. There is no copyright violation involved in using Shakespeare’s plots or characters. And his works are so well-known that, even if an author or producer does not say, “Based on a play by William Shakespeare,” most people are gonna know anyway. We call this “homage.” It is not plagiarism. But telling your own version of a modern, copyrighted story–without attribution–is plagiarism. It’s taking credit for someone else’s story, and that’s wrong.

Star Trek: The Next Generation ripped off Classic Trek. OR The Force Awakens ripped off the original Star Wars. It is a legal and moral impossibility to steal from yourself. The producers of STTNG were authorized to make new Trek stories by the people who owned the rights to do just that. Disney bought the rights to Star Wars from George Lucas for a hell of a lot of money. That means they’re allowed to re-use characters and even plots. That does not mean that it’s okay for you to take someone else’s characters and plots. They don’t belong to you.

Several Star Trek episodes were based on the works of other authors. Yes, that’s true. “The Trouble with Tribbles” was considered similar in concept to an incident in Heinlein’s novel The Rolling Stones. David Gerrold didn’t realize this when he wrote the episode, but admitted when it was pointed out to him that he’d read the novel years earlier, and might have accidentally borrowed the idea. Desilu Studios, then-owners of Star Trek, contacted Heinlein and secured his permission to move forward without crediting or compensating him. (Heinlein regretted this decision when Tribble toys began to be sold.) “Arena” was based on a story by Frederic Brown. Brown is credited, and was paid for the use of his story. “Balance of Terror” is based on two films, The Enemy Below and Run Silent, Run Deep. As far as history records, no permission was sought, but–here’s the important bit–Star Trek was never challenged by the copyright holders of these films. Had they challenged, they certainly might have received credit or compensation or both. After The Terminator was released in 1984, Harlan Ellison sued based on similarities to an Outer Limits episode he’d written twenty years or so earlier. Ellison won that case.

“Balance of Terror” notwithstanding, the fact that one or two copyright holders failed to defend their intellectual property fifty years ago does not make it open season on all copyrighted works–not even if you happen to slap the sacred words “Star Trek” on the product you create. People also rob banks all the time. People shoplift. People commit murder. None of those crimes are “okay” because they’ve been done before.

Characters and stories are protected by copyright. If I created them, you cannot legally use them without my permission. If I sell them to a third party, neither you nor I can legally use them without that third party’s permission. Maybe you can use them better. Maybe you love them more than I do. It. Does. Not. Matter. They are not yours.

And here’s where the plight of the Axanar folks comes into play. I wish them the best, I really do. I feel bad that they put a lot of work into making a film, and a lot of fans spent a lot of money to see that film, and it may not happen. But here’s the thing. It’s a Star Trek film, and CBS owns Star Trek. CBS has the absolute right to say “No, you cannot make this film and release it professionally without our permission.” CBS has let a lot of fan films slide, it’s true. But this film apparently has brought in too much money, and is, in their eyes, a professional project.

“But Axanar is going to be better than Star Trek Into Darkness was!” It very well may be. That doesn’t mean CBS has to let it be made. It is their option to decide who makes and doesn’t make Star Trek films. They could shut down all the fan films. It’s their right. I hope they don’t, just like I hope they never shut down fan fiction. Fan creativity is too important. It’s such a wonderful proving ground and playground. But when fans start to believe that the works they create using other people’s characters and stories are just as legitimate as the works authorized by the copyright owners, well, in the words of Bing Crosby, “Hey, let’s get off the merry-go-round!”

I wrote Trek fan fic. I thought it was good. I also wrote licensed, professional Trek. I thought that was good, too, no better or worse than my fan works. But one was my labor of love and one was a job I was paid for. One made me a fan, and the other made me a professional Star Trek author. The title came when money was paid me by the copyright holder’s agent, not when I or anyone else deemed the quality of my work to be high enough.

Finally, some fans have tried to make an issue over the fact that Gene Roddenberry might have liked thus-and-such fan production better than the films that have grown out of the 2009 reboot. But, as I mentioned above, once you sell your interest in something you created, it doesn’t really matter what you think anymore. Not legally. Roddenberry didn’t own Star Trek. For a brief, humorous diatribe on this subject by another (more prolific) professional writer of Trek, see my friend Keith R.A. DeCandido’s blog post here.

Fans don’t own Star Trek. We don’t get to take it over because we don’t think the current owners are doing a good job with it. We could try to buy it. We could write our own stories and enjoy them. We could boycott. We could write letters and ask for better stories. But we can’t make professional Star Trek products without the legal authority to do so.

Until we have that legal authority, we’re just using someone else’s property. And if that someone else says “that’s not okay,” then, dammit, it is not okay.

Similarly, if someone did use my novel–or anyone’s novel or story–as the basis for a film, without permission, then all the Shakespeare references and “Star Trek always did this” excuses in the world would not make it “okay.” I don’t know for fact that this other work was based on my work, nor am I particularly interested in taking the matter further. What really disturbs me is that so many people are willing to stipulate that it was based on someone else’s uncredited work, and then turn around and claim that there’s no problem with that.

Because there’s a problem with that.

19 thoughts on “Do Star Trek Fans Just Not Understand Copyright?

  1. Please don’t lump all fans together; there are many, many Star Trek fans who understand copyright perfectly well, and they are posting at places like the Star Trek BBS and IStandWithCBS (Facebook) regarding the CBS action against Axanar, the “fan film” that turns out to have commercial enterprises attached to it. I think part of the problem is a “modern sensibility” in the digital age, which encourages people–a minority but a vocal one–to regard content as “belonging” to everyone who likes it because it can be passed around; there is so much content that sleazy types hope and expect to get away with misuse/theft long enough to make a fast buck before they are found out. Or, they hope to fly under the radar as tiny guppies in a large sea, figuring no one will bother with them. Such people tend not to focus on right and wrong, but on how much they can get away with. They do not represent all of us, nor even a majority, I think.

    • I don’t really think that *NO* fans understand copyright. The title of the article was a rhetorical question, born of frustration, and meant to start a dialogue. It seems to have done that, so that’s good. I agree with you that the modern age has challenged our concept of morality. I do think that studios and artists need to get with the times and make their work easier to access and share. But artists should always get credit for their work, and none of us should feel we can just grab another person’s works and claim to own them.

  2. Its a shame Axanar wont be shown or stopped, as a fan I was looking forward to it, now if the creators of the film offer sharing of profits and a nod to the owners would this cover the bases? Just curious.

    • I agree it’s a terrible shame, Eric. I think they’ve already made a nod to the owners, just by using the name ‘Star Trek.’ As far as any profit-sharing goes, that would need to be negotiated. David Gerrold has some really neat ideas about that, in his reply to my post on Facebook. Basically, he calls for CBS to build a “safe space,” where fans can create original works withing guidelines that CBS can live with.

      • Gerrald can “call for ‘safe space'” all he wants. Trek belongs to Paramount/CBS. Period. No amount of posting about “dinosaur industries” or any of that bilge is going to change that.

        “safe space” already exists to the extent that is CAN exist. That’s why NV and Continues, et al have not been sued. They played by the rules. Alec didn’t. And now he’s paying the price.

        It really is that simple.

        Alec and his band risk ALL fandom getting shot down. All it would take would be for P/CBS to go “frak it” and start going after hosts and ISPs for sheltering violating content.

        The first time Comcast, or any of the “big boys” loses a couple $100 million, it’s all over.

        It’s a shame too…Axanar looked AMAZING.

        • I think David’s proposal is sound, actually. If CBS is going to give conditions under which fan films can be produced, they need to put those conditions in writing. Because, technically, all fan films and all fan fic break the rules. So tell us clearly what we may do with the franchise, and then use that as PR for the films and the new series. Star Wars has had some success with that.

        • Except that according to the Axanar website Mr. Peters and the production team DID very much “play by the rules.” Frankly, I’ve seen nothing convincing – and a lot that stinks to high-heaven – from Axanar’s detractors claiming that the project brought down the wrath of Paramount due to their own “selfish actions”. Yet, quite the contrary, everything Axanar has posted and claimed so far checks out (visit their website if you like for confirmation). So, how exactly did they “break the rules” (and, please, I hope you aren’t going to suggest as some have that salary = profit as that notion fails on multiple levels) or are you just repeating what someone else said at face value without actually checking into it?

          • My assumption was that Axanar simply got more notice than other productions, and thus drew CBS’s fire, not that they particularly broke rules. Again, if there are no written rules to check on, it’s hard to make a call. The only documented rules say that fan fic and fan films are an infringement. The copyright holders’ decision to tolerate them is above and beyond the law. I’m interested, though: How do you feel that the argument that fan films shouldn’t pay salaries or make a profit fails on multiple levels? To me, that would be an obvious overstep. The unwritten understanding has always been “It’s okay as long as you don’t make money.” Making a profit violates both copyright law and that unwritten understanding of what fan productions can get away with. (And this is a completely theoretical question. I know nothing about Axanar vis a vis paying salaries or making profits.)

          • From Axanar’s Indiegogo page: “Axanar is the first fully-professional, independent Star Trek film. While some may call it a “fan film” as we are not licensed by CBS…”

            Fully-professional, independent. In my eyes, that means that this is not a fan production.

            Also, part of the funds raised off of Star Trek, an IP that they don’t own, is being use to create Ares Studios, a studio that will be used for professional and fan productions. That means that a) they will be directly profiting from Star Trek, because they will us them for “for profit” productions and b) by allowing others to use them for fan productions, they are encouraging the use of IP not owned by the producers.

            To me, that just sounds wrong.

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  4. I think there’s a ‘fanboy’ aspect to this. A lot know better, but when it’s their favorite pet project they become a bit irrational…hence: fanboys.

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  7. I don’t think you your self understand it at all, as Paramount Studio and Viacom don’t want us Star Trek fans to make any money of any kind. That just tells you that they are so greedy. But they have not done a TV show for years. But did you know that you have a right to dress in a Trek uniform? But the Studio don’t get no money from you. How’s this for you?. Keep this up and let people just see how far we can take this subject.

    • You introduce an interesting question, Kenny–do we have a right to dress in a Trek uniform? It seems like a silly question on the surface. After all, throughout most of our lives, we could go to the store and buy a costume and dress like our favorite characters, Star Trek characters included. Since the owners of Trek have licensed these products, it certainly seems they’re encouraging us to do so. But the key word here is “license.” All those store-bought costumes are (presumably) licensed by the copyright owners. A manufacturer makes the costume under license, a distributor sells the costume to a retailer, who sells it to you, under license. That means the studio does get money from us, because they get a share of the profits on the licensed product.

      Ah, but then there’s cosplay. Or, as we called it in my day, “Dressing up for Costume Call.” (Yes, I know, it’s not always the same thing.) If I build, from scratch, a Star Trek-inspired costume, do I have a right to wear it? My right to free expression says I can wear anything I want to, but there are limits. I can’t wear an actual police, fire or military uniform, because that’s impersonating an officer. Similarly, I can’t legally wear the trademarked logo of a company, unless I have their permission. But cosplayers do it all the time. That’s not because they have a right to do so, it’s because their infringement is tolerated.

      I would say that a right is something you enjoy because you’re a human being. Something you couldn’t live your life without. In the US, we decided long ago that those rights were the right to life, the right to liberty and the right to property. It’s an outgrowth of the right to property that says I can’t use someone else’s trademark without permission. So, no, we don’t have the right to wear a Trek uniform. But, if we bought a licensed one, we also bought a license to wear it.

      Are the studios greedy? Oh yes. Big Entertainment’s greed, and their hold over our government in the US, extends a lot farther than Trek fandom. So I’m right in there with you in condemning them for their grasping behavior. At the same time, I can’t say it’s surprising that they don’t want us to make money by selling unlicensed products using their trademarks. That’s not greed, that’s just self-protection. I’m the same way about my trademarks. Unless we’re hired by the copyright owners, we don’t have the right to make money on Trek. We’re lucky that–except for some very high-profile film ventures–they’ve left our fanzines and fan films alone all these years.

  8. Kenny also contacted me via email to suggest that fans buy shares of Viacom or CBS. (CBS Television Studios, which split off from Viacom in 2005, owns TV Trek; Viacom, which owns Paramount, owns movie Trek. Confused yet?) See this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star_Trek#Corporate_ownership

    I like the way you’re thinking, Kenny. Putting your money where your mouth is is laudable. I tend to doubt, though, that fans could buy enough public shares to call the shots. There are SEC regulations for takeovers and all kinds of red tape. It would be an interesting experiment, though!

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