The business of fan films—that is, unauthorized productions of (usually short) films that use existing intellectual property without the license to do so made by people who just really like Star Trek or the X-Men or whatever—is a murky one. Technically, they're all copyright infringement, but studios and rights holders learned long ago that it's not a great business practice to sue people who are so enthusiastic about your characters they inhabit that they spend their own money to film themselves and their friends having adventures in those worlds.
But as filmmaking technology—as well as access to crowdsourced funding—have developed, the question has gotten even murkier. What's the real line between a fan film and outright copyright infringement? That's a question that Paramount and CBS, which own the film and television rights to the Star Trek franchise—which possesses that most impassioned of fanbases—has been dealing with in the wake of a fan film named Axanar, which raised more than $638,000 on Kickstarter to create a full-length feature set in the Star Trek universe. That Axanar was in production at the same time as Paramount's Star Trek Beyond has been tricky for the studio, which sued. (Last month, J.J. Abrams announced that the suit would be dropped, which hasn't actually happened.) Paramount's argument—that they own Star Trek and don't want to have to compete with an unauthorized feature using their own property—makes sense. The argument of the Axanar creators and the fans who funded it—that Paramount's interpretation of Star Trek is very different from the Star Trek they love, so the films aren't really in competition—is well-taken, too. And ultimately, the fact that there's so little clarity on what constitutes a "fan film" and what's considered actionable copyright infringement has made all of this complicated.
To make it less complicated, though, Paramount and CBS released official guidelines today indicating what a fan film that isn't at risk of being sued looks like. The 10-point list of rules range from the nuts-and-bolts practical (you can make one 15-minute short, or a serialized story that's no longer than 30 minutes total, and no more than two parts; if you crowdfund, you're capped at $50,000; you can't generate revenue) to the more philosophical ("amateur" means "no professional actors," especially "no professional actors who have been on Star Trek before"; Star Trek fan films have to be family friendly, so your Riker/Deanna Troi erotic short is off-limits) to the basic legal (don't use bootleg uniforms if they're commercially available; include "A Star Trek fan production" in the subtitle and don't use the word "official" anywhere).
These are pretty clear rules, even if they might not hold up if somebody who made a fan-film who wanted to challenge some of them gave it a shot. ("Bootleg" filmmaker Adi Shankar, whose dark Power/Rangers short and whose Punisher fan film starred former Punisher actor Thomas Jane, contested attempts to remove his work from streaming services by successfully citing Fair Use.) They don't necessarily determine the fate of Axanar, either—copyright holders explicitly stating what they won't sue people over doesn't tell us how the lawsuits they've already filed will turn out. But if you're looking to make a Star Trek fan film, and your ambitions are relatively low, it's probably nice to have some clarity right about now.
CBS and Paramount Pictures are big believers in reasonable fan fiction and fan creativity, and, in particular, want amateur fan filmmakers to showcase their passion for Star Trek. Therefore, CBS and Paramount Pictures will not object to, or take legal action against, Star Trek fan productions that are non-professional and amateur and meet the following guidelines.
Guidelines for Avoiding Objections:
- The fan production must be less than 15 minutes for a single self-contained story, or no more than 2 segments, episodes or parts, not to exceed 30 minutes total, with no additional seasons, episodes, parts, sequels or remakes.
- The title of the fan production or any parts cannot include the name "Star Trek." However, the title must contain a subtitle with the phrase: "A STAR TREK FAN PRODUCTION" in plain typeface. The fan production cannot use the term "official" in either its title or subtitle or in any marketing, promotions or social media for the fan production.
- The content in the fan production must be original, not reproductions, recreations or clips from any Star Trek production. If non-Star Trek third party content is used, all necessary permissions for any third party content should be obtained in writing.
- If the fan production uses commercially-available Star Trek uniforms, accessories, toys and props, these items must be official merchandise and not bootleg items or imitations of such commercially available products.
- The fan production must be a real "fan" production, i.e., creators, actors and all other participants must be amateurs, cannot be compensated for their services, and cannot be currently or previously employed on any Star Trek series, films, production of DVDs or with any of CBS or Paramount Pictures’ licensees.
- The fan production must be non-commercial:
• CBS and Paramount Pictures do not object to limited fundraising for the creation of a fan production, whether 1 or 2 segments and consistent with these guidelines, so long as the total amount does not exceed $50,000, including all platform fees, and when the $50,000 goal is reached, all fundraising must cease.
• The fan production must only be exhibited or distributed on a no-charge basis and/or shared via streaming services without generating revenue.
• The fan production cannot be distributed in a physical format such as DVD or Blu-ray.
• The fan production cannot be used to derive advertising revenue including, but not limited to, through for example, the use of pre or post-roll advertising, click-through advertising banners, that is associated with the fan production.
• No unlicensed Star Trek-related or fan production-related merchandise or services can be offered for sale or given away as premiums, perks or rewards or in connection with the fan production fundraising.
• The fan production cannot derive revenue by selling or licensing fan-created production sets, props or costumes.
- The fan production must be family friendly and suitable for public presentation. Videos must not include profanity, nudity, obscenity, pornography, depictions of drugs, alcohol, tobacco, or any harmful or illegal activity, or any material that is offensive, fraudulent, defamatory, libelous, disparaging, sexually explicit, threatening, hateful, or any other inappropriate content. The content of the fan production cannot violate any individual’s right of privacy.
- The fan production must display the following disclaimer in the on-screen credits of the fan productions and on any marketing material including the fan production website or page hosting the fan production: "Star Trek and all related marks, logos and characters are solely owned by CBS Studios Inc. This fan production is not endorsed by, sponsored by, nor affiliated with CBS, Paramount Pictures, or any other Star Trek franchise, and is a non-commercial fan-made film intended for recreational use. No commercial exhibition or distribution is permitted. No alleged independent rights will be asserted against CBS or Paramount Pictures."
- Creators of fan productions must not seek to register their works, nor any elements of the works, under copyright or trademark law.
- Fan productions cannot create or imply any association or endorsement by CBS or Paramount Pictures.
CBS and Paramount Pictures reserve the right to revise, revoke and/or withdraw these guidelines at any time in their own discretion. These guidelines are not a license and do not constitute approval or authorization of any fan productions or a waiver of any rights that CBS or Paramount Pictures may have with respect to fan fiction created outside of these guidelines.