District court denies motion to dismiss copyright infringement claims against producers of unauthorized “Star Trek” films that incorporate numerous elements of famous motion picture and television franchise, including Klingon and Vulcan species, the U.S.S. Enterprise starship and certain “Star Trek” characters.
Paramount Pictures and CBS Studios own the copyrights in the “Star Trek” franchise, which includes six television series and 12 motion pictures that were created over a 50-year period. CBS owns the copyrights in the “Star Trek” television series, while Paramount owns the copyrights in the “Star Trek” films.
“Prelude to Axanar” is a short film written and produced by Axanar Productions and its principal, Alec Peters, that tells the story of Garth of Izar during the war between the Federation and the Klingon Empire. The defendants funded this short film through Kickstarter, a crowdsource fundraising website. They incorporated numerous elements of the “Star Trek” franchise into the short film, including the Battle of Axanar, the Federation, Klingons, Vulcans, Starfleet, and Starfleet officers and commanders, including Garth of Izar. Defendants have distributed “Prelude to Axanar” on YouTube. “Axanar” is a feature-length motion picture that takes place 21 years before the first episode of the original “Star Trek” television series featuring Captain Kirk. “Axanar” tells the story of Kirk’s hero, Garth of Izar, and his starship crew during the Four Years War between the Federation and the Klingon Empire. Defendants have filmed at least one scene of the “Axanar” film and are currently in the process of producing and directing additional scenes and creating sets and designing costumes for the film.
Paramount and CBS sued defendants for copyright infringement, contributory copyright infringement and vicarious copyright infringement, arguing that defendants copied numerous protected elements from the “Star Trek” franchise, including elements of the Battle of Axanar, characters, species, costumes, makeup, weapons and starships. Defendants moved to dismiss on the grounds that the plaintiffs failed to plead copyright infringement with sufficient specificity and improperly based their claims on “information and belief.” Defendants also argued that plaintiffs’ claims were premature, because the feature-length “Axanar” film is not yet complete, and that it would be an impermissible prior restraint for the court to allow the plaintiffs’ claims to proceed. Defendants further argued that the district court must “filter out” non-protectable elements of the “Star Trek” copyrighted works before allowing the infringement claims to proceed.
The district court rejected each of the defendants’ arguments and denied the motion to dismiss in its entirety. First, the court concluded that Paramount and CBS had pleaded copyright infringement with sufficient specificity, because they defined the “Star Trek” copyrighted works and included in their complaint a detailed description of the allegedly infringing elements. The district court found that the complaint gave defendants sufficient notice of the allegedly infringing elements at issue. As an example, the court pointed to the plaintiffs’ allegations that defendants’ film includes Soval, a character first seen in an episode of plaintiffs’ “Enterprise” television series and later seen in other “Star Trek” copyrighted works. The district court rejected defendants’ argument that Paramount lacked standing to sue because the complaint did not specify which original aspects of the motion pictures and derivative works were infringed, ruling that the complaint sufficiently made clear that Paramount was suing for copyright infringement of the copyrightable elements of its motion pictures.
The district court also rejected defendants’ argument that Paramount and CBS had improperly based their claims on allegations made on “information and belief,” noting that these allegations are bolstered by comparisons of the works at issue, and from defendants’ public postings on social media. For example, the complaint includes a screenshot of a Facebook post of a photo of Peters posing with a “fully revised and locked script.” The district court also held that the vicarious infringement claims did not require an allegation that defendants had realized a profit for their actions. The district court found that it could infer that the allegedly infringing material “acts as a draw” for customers, based on the fact that defendants raised $1 million to produce the films and disseminate them on YouTube.
Next, the district court rejected the defendants’ argument that it must “filter out” non-protectable elements of the “Star Trek” copyrighted works. The district court noted that the plaintiffs’ claims are based on the “Star Trek” franchise as a whole and, even if each element were not individually protected by copyright, non-protectable elements may gain some protection in combination.
Defendants also argued that plaintiffs’ claims were premature because the “Axanar” film is not yet complete, and that, without the film, the district court would be unable to analyze substantial similarity or evaluate a fair use or de minimis use defense. The district court rejected this argument, finding it plausible that the defendants have completed a final script for the “Axanar” film based on defendants’ social media statements. The district court pointed out that it will be able to analyze substantial similarity based on the script and the already-completed and disseminated scene from the film.
Lastly, the district court rejected defendants’ argument that it would be an impermissible prior restraint for the court to allow infringement claims based on the “Axanar” film to proceed, because plaintiffs have not yet filed a motion for injunctive relief. Therefore, defendants are not restrained by the filing of the complaint.
Summary Prepared by Tal Dickstein and Janus Schulte