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.