Complaint against Crowdfunded Star Trek Film Prevails

By virtue of being the owner of a movie,the producer (or his licensee) as a sole proprietor or the right holders have exclusive rights to use the trademarks, copyright and any Intellectual Property contained in a motion picture, in any manner whatsoever, including the right to reproduce, make derivative works, distribute, perform or right to publicly display the work.  These intellectual Properties in a movie includes, but is not limited to names, photographs, the specific characters, likeness, titles, artworks/images/stills/posters, dialogues etc. Therefore, any use of right holder’s intellectual property, in any manner whatsoever, requires prior permission and consent from the right holder.Consequently, use of intellectual property without prior authorization from the right holder would constitute a blatant violation of right holder’s legal rights and would amount to infringement under applicable laws.

District Court of California in a recent judgement reemphasized this fact by allowing the complaint filed by Paramount Pictures Corporation and CBS Studios Inc. (Plaintiffs) against Axanar Production Inc. and another (Defendants) alleging copyright infringement.

Plaintiffs are the copyright holders of the much celebrated Star Trek franchise. Copyright dispute arose when the Defendants started a campaign on crowdsource fundraising Website to fund a feature film entitled “Prelude to Axanar” which according to the Plaintiffs infringes their works by using Star Trek settings, characters, species and themes. Plaintiffs alleged that Defendants through their fundraising campaign had raised over $1 million to produce these infringing works.

Plaintiffs to prove the infringement drew up various protected elements that were part of Defendant’s infringing movie, which included elements of Battle of Axanar, The Federation, The Klingon, Vulcans, Starfleet, Starfleet officers and commanders, Garth of Izar, costumes, makeup, weapons and starships.

Defendants on the other hand argued that Plaintiffs failed to provide sufficient specificity of the infringing works by identifying each work at issue and asked for the dismissal of the complaint. The Court declined to accept this contention stating that in a copyright claim there was no requirement to plead a comprehensive list of infringing acts, a representative act of infringement was sufficient. Therefore, held that the Plaintiffs provided sufficient notice of the alleged infringing elements at issue.

Defendants further argued that, the Plaintiffs arguments were insufficient and made on “information and belief”. Court declining to accept this argument held that Plaintiffs allegations were strengthened by Defendants public postings on social media which read “fully revised and locked script”, and the Plaintiffs copyright infringement allegations were based on this script along with “Vulcan Scene”, one scene of the infringing motion picture released by the Defendant.

Plaintiffs further to substantiate their claim of vicarious infringement and to show the financial benefit derived by the Defendants, placed their argument on the fact that Defendants were financially benefiting  by being funded by crowdsourcing websites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. In addition to this the Defendants are distributing and publicly performing infringing work prelude to Axanar online via YouTube. Plaintiffs further successfully address the stand alone requirement of protectable elements. The Court held that “when viewed in a vacuum, each of the elements may not individually be protected by copyright. The fact that Plaintiffs do not seek to enforce their copyright in each of the elements individually, but the copyright infringement claim is based on copyrighted work as a whole” satisfies this element.

The Court after considering all the arguments and evidence placed on record held that the Plaintiffs claim survives Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss. Hence, it allowed the complaint filed by the Plaintiffs.

Authored by Bhuvana S. Babu.

  1. Paramount Pictures Corp. & CBS Studios Inc. v. Axanar Production, Inc. & Alec Peters, initial ruling