RB: The Historical Relationship Between Star Trek Fan Films and Paramount

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”

Thus, the show was distributed for free, and has survived by labor and cash donations. In 2005, Variety profiled another Trek fan series, Hidden Frontier, also saying that:

“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.

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3 Comments

  1. This example demonstrates that content production on the Internet (including amateur production and remix) is still subject to many of the legal and creative constraints of offline copyright holders like Paramount. Although new media technologies have made fan productions easier to make and have given them greater reach, they haven’t necessarily made these fan productions legal as their own forms of expression. The copyright holder’s power over the Star Trek brand and how it is used still holds: fan expression is permitted, but only in the absence of profit. But the peaceful agreement of Trekkies not to profit off the existent fanbase may not last forever–your response seems to suggest that the fan producers are keeping the brand alive and may someday come to feel as if they “own” it–and should be able to control it–themselves.

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  2. Richmond – Again, I find your topic very interesting! I think that this case is particularly unique because it involves professionals making these videos rather than amateurs. I also find it fascinating that for Paramount, money is the biggest factor. They clearly do not mind the free promotion that these fan videos are giving the series, nor do they find the basically free labor that they are receiving. For them, it is a good deal because they are getting promotion without spending any money. I wonder how the people making these videos feel about this. I think if you could find any information regarding how these people felt it would add a new dimension to your topic. Good work!

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  3. I think that this controversy is very interesting–and unique to what the rest of the members in our group will be covering. As Roxanna noted- I also think it would be interesting to see how the people who make these fan videos feel about the controversy. I will also be looking into how the people who are making remixes feel about the controversial acts that they are taking part in. It adds a unique dimension!

    Reply

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