Axanar Creator Faces New Legal Threat

Star Trek fan film creator Alec Peters is facing yet another legal challenge as Paramount Pictures and CBS have filed a petition in a Los Angeles court seeking confirmation of a $292,000 arbitration award against him and his production company.

Peters rose to fame in July 2014 when he, along with director Christian Gossett, debuted a short film entitled Star Trek: Prelude to Axanar. Describing the work as an “independent” Star Trek film, the 21-minute video was shot in documentary style and detailed a war between the Federation and the Klingons from before the events of Star Trek: The Original Series

The film had been funded through Kickstarter, where it had raised some $101,000 in funds.

On the back of that success, Peters launched another crowdfunding campaign. The goal this time was to make a feature-length fan film based on the events. Between Kickstarter and Indiegogo, this new film, simply entitled Axanar, raised over $1.1 million in funding.

However, in December 2015, after the film was funded and moving into pre-production, Paramount and CBS filed a lawsuit against Peters, alleging copyright infringement. 

In June 2016, while the case was ongoing, Paramount and CBS released guidelines for fan Star Trek creations. It limited fan video creations to just two 15 minute segments, placing severe restrictions on funding and limiting how the Star Trek name could be used. Those changes were unpopular with many fans and also endangered many ongoing fan projects.

In January 2017, following several key decisions in favor of CBS and Paramount, Peters opted to settle the case. The settlement allowed Axanar to move forward, but under the new fan film guidelines. 

However, in their new filing, CBS and Paramount allege that Peters flouted the agreement almost from day one. Not only did he continue to raise funds, despite promises that he wouldn’t, he also is alleged to have continued to use Star Trek branding, offer Star Trek-branded merchandise and even drawing a salary.

Because of these alleged violations, CBS and Paramount filed a petition for arbitration in May 2022. Part of the settlement was that any disagreements or breaches of the settlement agreement would be handled through arbitration. That is why CBS and Paramount went that path, and why Peter’s unsuccessful counterclaims were heard there as well. 

In September 2023, the arbitrators reached their Final Arbitration Award, which found that Peters had violated the terms of the settlement and awarded CBS and Paramount $292,372.54 in costs. 

That, in turn, prompted the filing with the court in Los Angeles (PDF), where CBS and Paramount are hoping that the court will confirm the award and compel Peters and Axanar Productions Inc to pay the amount.

As of this writing, neither the originally planned Axanar movie nor the two 15-minute segments have been released. 

The case is an interesting microcosm of the challenges large creators and rightsholders are facing when it comes to fan creation. The landscape of fan fiction, fan art and fan film has changed drastically in just the last 15 years and companies like CBS and Paramount are struggling to find the right balance.

The Problem with Fan Fiction/Art/Film

Simply put, the fan fiction climate today is not the same that existed 15 or 20 years ago.

For much of recent history, creators (with some exceptions) have largely tolerated non-commercial fan creations and fan projects. The reason is simple, though they might technically be copyright infringements, they don’t particularly harm creators and can help keep the fan community engaged. Perhaps most importantly, almost no one wants to go to war against their fans.

However, in recent years, fan fiction has become more and more commercialized. Many big-name authors, including E.L. James and Cassandra Claire, got their start in fan fiction communities. Fan art is routinely sold on sites like Etsy, either directly or on other items, and the lines between commercial and non-commercial fan creations have become blurrier as time has passed.

To that end, perhaps the biggest change was the rise of crowdfunding. Now it is possible for fan creators to raise large sums of money for “non-profit” projects, such as the Axanar films. 

Where, in 2010, the “unspoken rule” was that most fan art was tolerated as long as it wasn’t commercialized, the space has gotten significantly more complicated and that’s left companies like CBS and Paramount scrambling to draw and enforce boundaries in an ever-changing landscape.

There are no easy answers here and, if anything makes that clear, it’s the way this case has gone so far.

A Reluctant Plaintiff

One thing that is pretty clear is that CBS and Paramount were not eager to file a lawsuit against Peters.

Looking back at the original case, they didn’t file a lawsuit after Prelude to Axanar was crowdfunded or released. That’s in spite of the fact that Prelude to Axanar, if made today, would violate the stated rules for fan productions.

CBS and Paramount only took action when the campaign for the Axanar film raised over $1 million and was being advertised as a “professional” and “independent” Star Trek production. 

Between the excessive fundraising, the use of the Star Trek name/logos and the presentation of the project, Peters had gone well beyond both legal and social norms around fan creations. CBS and Paramount likely felt that they had no choice.

This was seen in the settlement agreement between the parties. Though the case had been going in favor of CBS and Paramount, they reached a settlement that allowed the film to continue, albeit under some significant constraints. For Peters, this was a sweetheart deal that, based upon his alleged actions, he didn’t feel actually bound to.

However, even as they documented instances of Peters allegedly breaching the agreement, CBS and Paramount ultimately waited over five years to even file for arbitration. Now, with that arbitration decision in hand, they are only seeking costs connected with the arbitration.

Even then, the arbitrator found that, “the hourly rates are reasonable, and even discounted” when compared to similar lawyers in the Los Angeles area.

In short, CBS and Paramount have made it pretty clear that they have no interest in going to legal war with fan productions. However, they simply feel that Peters has gone so far that they have no choice but to act. Even then, they are still working to minimize the damages Peters might owe.

For CBS and Paramount, this is a dangerous case. A huge award could generate unwanted headlines about them going to war with fans of Star Trek. Cases often lose their nuance when large damage awards are discussed, look at what happened with the Blurred Lines case

Neither CBS nor Paramount want a reputation for suing their fans. That’s likely why they are being so delicate in this case, even though their allegations paint a picture that normally would call for much more heavy-handed action.

Bottom Line

This case neatly summarizes the challenges that creators and rightsholders have when it comes to fan creations. Finding the balance between protecting one’s intellectual property and not going to war with your fan base is a difficult one.

Some authors, like Anne Rice, have famously thrown caution to the wind on that front. Rice had a reputation for suing and threatening all fan fiction authors, even those who only published non-commercially.

However, even that has changed following her passing, as creators of the recent Interview with a Vampire TV series actively encouraged fan fiction. Even Rice herself has warmed up at least some to fan fiction by the early 2010s.

For creators, fan fiction and fan creations represent both an incredible opportunity for community engagement and an incredible risk in terms of how it can harm their intellectual property. Finding a balance, communicating that balance clearly to fans, and then enforcing those boundaries is a difficult and nuanced task.

To that end, CBS and Paramount have made it clear that they aren’t itching for a legal fight with the creators of fan works. Countless other Star Trek fan works are being made every day, and there’s rarely even murmurs of legal action. 

Peters, it seems, is unique in that he pushed CBS and Paramount to do what they had previously most dreaded, file a lawsuit against their fan and then go back to court to enforce the settlement. 

Regardless of the outcome in this case, it’s clear that CBS and Paramount have cut Peters a great deal of slack and given him every opportunity to avoid litigation. 

It just seems they finally ran out of rope to give. 

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