Fan Fiction After Axanar

Putting the "Ax" in Axanar...

Axanar ImageBack in February, I wrote an article about how money and fame have changed fan fiction and why the Axanar lawsuit was a turning point. In that article I made a statement that rightsholders of popular franchises were unlikely to set rigid guidelines for fan creations.

The reason was simple. It’s impossible for creators to predict how fans will exploit their works and, as such, flexibility is crucial to dealing with fan creations. Any kind of firm guidelines will only limit that flexibility.

However, Paramount and CBS have put egg on my face. Last week, they announced new guidelines for Star Trek fan films.

But it’s possible Paramount and CBS regret that decision. Though fans said they wanted clear guidelines, they are clearly unhappy with the ones they got. The team from Axanar even said, “The guidelines were written by a group of over-caffeinated lawyers and licensing employees with little to no understanding of the concept of Star Trek fandom,” before calling for fans to rise up against CBS.

But what are the guidelines and why did they turn a fan controversy into an open revolt? The answer is complicated but it points to a very different future for fan creation following Axanar.

The Axanar Problem

Star Trek FlagTo recap the Axanar lawsuit, Axanar is a Star Trek-based fan film that was intended as a prequel to the events of the original Star Trek TV series.

Crowdfunded to the tune of over $1 million, the creators of the would-be film were sued by CBS and Paramount, the rightsholders to the Star Trek franchise, which previously had a long history of open tolerance of fan creations.

It was the juxtaposition of CBS and Paramount’s history with the lawsuit that sent shockwaves through the fan fiction and fan film community. Why was Axanar being sued while other projects, such as Star Trek Continues, were allowed to move forward?

Though there’s been a great deal of speculation, there’s been no official word from CBS and  Paramount about why Axanar was targeted. This, understandably, put other fan projects on edge.

Seeking to calm those fears, CBS and Paramount released a joint statement outlining the guidelines for future fan film projects. However, rather than easing concern, the guidelines have produced outright anger, with most saying the guidelines are overly restrictive and make it impossible to create most fan projects.

To understand the anger, we have to take a look at the guidelines themselves and understand what exactly has Star Trek fans so outraged.

The Star Trek Fan Film Guidelines

CBS and Paramount released the guidelines and gave 10 separate requirements that a fan film project must meet to be safe from legal action.

Many of the requirements are perfectly understandable including language that needs to be included in any credits and restrictions on implied endorsement by the creators.

However, some of the guidelines have clearly earned the ire of Star Trek fans and creators of fan film projects.

Some of those guidelines include:

  1. Limiting stories to just 15 minutes, or 2 segments totalling 30 minutes.
  2. Limiting all fundraising to $50,000.
  3. Preventing the use of the Star Trek name in the title and requiring a subtitle that clearly states the film is a fan fiction work.
  4. Restricting content to avoid profanity, nudity, obscenity or other material CBS and Paramount find objectionable.
  5. Preventing all previous Star Trek actors from participating in fan projects and preventing the use of all content in previous, official Star Trek productions.

These guidelines immediately jeopardize current and ongoing Star Trek fan projects. Star Trek Continues, for example, is 40 minute episodes, uses Star Trek in the title, raised over $200,000 on Kickstarter and has involvement from several Star Trek alumnus.

Star Trek: Renegades, now just Renegades, faces many of the same challenges. It raised over $375,000 in crowd funding, previously had Star Trek in the name, planned episodes longer than the guidelines allowed and features several former Star Trek actors.

In fact, Renegades recently announced that it’s removed all references to Star Trek in a bid to make the series wholly original.

In short, while the guidelines intended to create more certainty for fan film projects, they actually created less certainty for existing ones. However, that may be exactly what CBS and Paramount intended.

The Purpose of The Guidelines

Reading the guidelines, it’s clear that CBS and Paramount feel that fan films have gotten out of control. They want to rein in fan film efforts, greatly limiting their size and scope.

They said as much in their announcement of the guidelines:

“Throughout the years, many of you have expressed your love for the franchise through creative endeavors such as fan films. So today, we want to show our appreciation by bringing fan films back to their roots.”

The upbeat tone belies the deeper truth. The roots to which CBS wants to take fan films back to is a much more amateurish time. Back before million dollar budgets and professional-quality work.

CBS and Paramount, as the rightsholders, certainly have the freedom to set whatever limitations they want on fan films, including disallowing them completely. However, their wish is unlikely to come true.

As we discussed in the previous post, the line between amateur and professional has blurred beyond all recognition. We live in a time where many people earn a living playing video games on YouTube, creating costumes for cosplay or, in some cases, turning works previously written as fan fiction into professional works.

The unspoken rule I wrote about in 2010, the one that says fan creations are fine so long as there is no intent to profit, is falling apart. To make matters worse, CBS and Paramount’s effort to draft firm guidelines may have done more to aggravate the problem than to solve it.

If there’s one thing that can be said about the future of fan fiction and fan films, it’s that it’s going to be much more complicated and that much of the halcyon days may already be gone.

There will be no more hiding safely behind unwritten rules nor nonchalance about copyright. The future of fan creation is a more complicated one. One with fewer certainties and more controversy.

To many, that means it will be a lot less fun.

Bottom Line

Fan creation has always had copyright hanging over it like a sword of Damocles. Rightsholders have largely tolerated fan fiction and fan films, even holding awards for them in some fandoms, but that relationship was always tenuous at best.

Now that relationship is strained. Budgets have swollen on original creation and fan works have grown to be seen as stiff competition for official productions. Axanar was just a tipping point in a trend that had been building for some time.

Axanar may be the first skirmish of its kind but it won’t be the last and Star Trek will not be the only fandom impacted this way.

Still, it will be interesting to see what repercussions, if any, CBS and Paramount face for their actions. Angering ones most dedicated fans is always a risky move, but it’s one that they clearly felt was worthwhile.

If that has any impact on their bottom line, it’s almost certain that other rightsholders will stand up and take notice.

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