In doing some initial research work for my essay on fan culture and copyright, I have looked into the relationship between Star Trek fans who create their own fan films, and how CBS or Paramount (the copyright holders to Star Trek) have reacted.
It seems this has changed over time – perhaps due to the profitability of Star Trek – it seems that the copyright holders were more strict about allowing fan productions in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, when previous Star Trek movies (before the JJ Abrams 2009 “reboot”) were being released and the Voyager and Enterprise series were still online. However, there may also be a relationship over time with a greater prevalence of online fan films, as well as interactions that led to changes and mutual understandings about not profiting from fan films.
According to a 1997 Wired Magazine article, in 1996, at the same time as the buildup to the release of the film Star Trek: First Contact
“Viacom Inc. sent a barrage of cease-and-desist letters to webmasters of Star Trek fan sites carrying copyrighted film clips, sounds, and insignias. Under threat of legal action, many Trekkers shut down”
While at this time, Lucasfilm had a policy regarding fan content of Star Wars fanfiction – that they are not for commercial gain, and protect the “image” of the characters, Viacom did not respond to requests for clarification of their policy at that time.
But by 2005, things had changed, Star Trek Enterprise was off the air, and there were no more movies or tv shows in the works. Wired Magazine profiled a new fan show, Star Trek New Voyages, that continued the original 60’s series. While these are fan productions, Wired noted that
“Each New Voyages episode is produced with the help of a growing network of Star Trek professionals. The makeup supervisor for the new episode…worked on one of the many Trek TV series…The script is by D. C. Fontana, a story editor for the original Star Trek series…And it will star Walter Koenig, the actor who played navigator Pavel Chekov in the original series”
Perhaps this institutional support had a role. But Paramount also had a clearer policy, as according to Wired:
“Paramount permits Trek-related fan projects, as long as the creators don’t profit from them”
“It’s all volunteer; the only reason Par isn’t shutting them down for copyright violation is that they’re scrupulous about not profiting from the series”
By today, as seen on the “Fan Films” section of a major Star Trek news site, there are numerous fan productions being created today and distributed for free. Thus it seems over the past 10-15 years, an environment has been created that allows the proliferation of these projects – perhaps partly to the role of new media and crowd sourcing, new media and new ways for fan distribution, but also perhaps the ability to tap into professional networks and the creation of an understanding (even if not formally written) between the distribution company and the fans.