I realize this is evolving, but I think there's a need for a cohesive summary of what had occurred and why. I haven't been following and it's daunting to sift through all the historical stories.
Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. I can only comment on what other people have written, or my own interpretation of court documents based on one semester of business (mainly tort, contract, and corporate governance) law.
CBS and Paramount have sued Axanar Productions for copyright infringement
Axanar Productions is a non-profit corporation that basically exists to funnel Kickstarter donations into Axanar, a (proposed) fan-made Star Trek prequel focusing on the Original Series character Garth of Izar. Axanar was in pre-production when the suit was filed, and filming has not yet started on it; however, a prequel short film titled Prelude to Axanar was produced and released in July 2014.
The initial suit was filed on December 29, 2015, asserting that Axanar was infringing on Paramount and CBS' copyright by producing a professional-quality film, intending to be "substantially similar" to copyrighted works:
Plaintiffs Paramount Pictures Corporation ("Paramount") and CBS Studios Inc. ("CBS") (collectively, "Plaintiffs"), by their attorneys, hereby bring this complaint against Axanar Productions, Inc. ("AP"), Alec Peters ("Peters"), and Does 1-20 (collectively, "Defendants"), and allege as follows:
- This is an action for copyright infringement arising out of Defendants' unauthorized exploitation of Star Trek, one of the most successful entertainment franchises of all time.
- Defendants have made a short film entitled Star Trek: Prelude to Axanar ("Prelude to Axanar"), and in the process of producing a film called Axanar (the "Axanar Motion Picture") (collectively, "the Axanar Works"). The Axanar Works infringe Plaintiff's works by using innumerable copyrighted elements of Star Trek, including its settings, characters, species, and themes. The Axanar Works are intended to be professional quality productions that, by Defendants' own admission, unabashedly take Paramount's and CBS's intellectual property and aim to "look and feel like a true Star Trek movie." [...] The Axanar Works are substantially similar to, and unauthorized derivative works of, Plaintiffs' Star Trek television series and movies, in contravention to the copyright laws of the United States.
There was some back-and-forth legal finagling by both sides, and there have been amendments made to the lawsuit since this version, but the general accusation remains the same.
There was some consternation over this, as you might expect.
JJ Abrams reportedly tried (apparently without success) to convince Paramount to settle
The issue was somewhat muddied when JJ Abrams announced that he and Star Trek Beyond director Justin Lin had convinced Paramount to drop the lawsuit, as the LA Times reported in June, 2016:
"[Lin and I] started talking about it and realized this was not an appropriate way to deal with the fans," Abrams told the crowd. "The fans should be celebrating this thing. Fans of 'Star Trek' are part of this world. So [Lin] went to the studio and pushed them to stop this lawsuit and now, within the next few weeks, it will be announced this is going away, and that fans would be able to continue working on their project."
Whatever Abrams and Lin actually did, they were unsuccessful in resolving the dispute; the blog FanFilmFactor reported on judicial rulings on January 11, 2017.
Axanar claimed fair use, and was denied
Axanar's response (PDF link) to the lawsuit essentially argues protection under the fair use doctrine (and a few other defenses that are outside my limited legal expertise). However, in a ruling (PDF link) filed on January 3, 2017, the presiding judge dismissed Axanar's fair use defense.
Axanar has other defenses, of course, which substantially boil down to Paramount and CBS endorsing Axanar's actions, either explicitly or implicitly.
The suit was settled out-of-court
According to a post on their blog, Axanar and Paramount/CBS reached an out-of-court settlement, which allows Axanar to continue producing their movie in a reduced form, and post it to Youtube without monetization:
Terms of the settlement agreement include an agreement to allow Axanar Productions to continue showing PRELUDE TO AXANAR commercial-free on YouTube and to allow Axanar Productions to produce the AXANAR feature film as two fifteen-minute segments that can be distributed on YouTube (also without ads).
The full details of the settlement haven't been made publicly available, but the FanFilmFactor blog published some additional details, which were sent to the film's donors in an email; those details include:
- Axanar isn't prohibited from using the professional actors who appeared in Prelude, which includes having Gary Graham reprise the role of Soval, which he played in Star Trek Enterprise and Prelude to Axanar
- Axanar (the film) has to conform to Paramount's published guidelines for fan films, which Radhil discusses in another answer
- Axanar (the company) isn't allowed to raise funds over Kickstarter, but is allowed to accept private donations
- Axanar is not prohibited from creating future Star Trek fan projects, as long as they adhere to Paramount's published guidelines
What does this have to do with Discovery?
Nothing at all; the suit alleges that Axanar Productions have infringed on Paramount's copyright by producing their film; nobody disputes that Paramount and CBS own the rights to Star Trek, and this suit will not directly affect the production of the new show.
You might be confused because the word "discovery" gets thrown around in some of the more recent reports; but this is a legal term, and refers to both parties of the suit gathering evidence to support their case or undermine the other side's. As far as I can tell, the lawsuit only recently exited the discovery phase; the most recent rulings are on motions in limine, which are basically requests for the judge to refuse to allow certain pieces of evidence to be used in the trial.
A bit of background is in order here. There's a few things to consider here
- Paramount picked the Star Trek franchise back up and has rebooted it with a new (and profitable) movie series
- CBS is making a new Star Trek series, Star Trek Discovery, to flagship their new streaming service
- Tim Russ (Tuvok from star-trek-voyager) worked with Walter Koenig (Chekov from star-trek-tos) to make a new "Star Trek Prime" (i.e. not Abrams reboot) movie called Star Trek: Renegades. Both of them reprised their roles as canon characters. As this was produced outside of CBS/Paramount, it has been released for free, as selling it would violate any copyrights and trademarks. This is not the only fan movie out there, and the number of full length movies available on YouTube is growing
- Axanar did a Kickstarter and raised money to make a professional quality movie. They formed a production company and paid people on staff. Even though the final product will be free, it appears that people are making money off the Star Trek franchise
The lawsuit appears to be doing two things
- Reining in the fan-productions. There are now official rules you have to follow to not be sued, and the rules clearly aim to prevent more movies like Renegades
- Establishing firmly in law (what's called precedent) what CBS/Paramount owns
Axanar appears to be a good test case because of the legal grey areas it falls into. In cases like this, you aim high, since it's unlikely you'll win on all counts. A good parallel here would be the lawsuit brought by JK Rowling against publishers who were looking to produce a fan book based the Harry Potter series. While she won the lawsuit, it likely cost more to bring the case than she won($6,750). But it establishes this as legal fact
“Plaintiffs have shown that the lexicon copies a sufficient quantity of the Harry Potter series to support a finding of substantial similarity between the Lexicon and Rowling’s novels,” Judge Robert P. Patterson Jr. of Federal District Court in Manhattan wrote in his 68-page ruling blocking publication of a Harry Potter Lexicon written by Steven Jan Vander Ark.
A similar ruling here would likely stifle future fan works. It would mean only CBS/Paramount could produce a TV series or movie (i.e. Star Trek Discovery).
Axanar has decided to abide by the offical rules and reduce their movie into a small series, in a largely undisclosed settlement
The settlement will also require the fanfic producer to “make substantial changes to Axanar to resolve this litigation.” According to a statement from Axanar, this includes changing the proposed feature-length film into two 15-minute short film episodes, which will be posted on YouTube without advertising from which Axanar could earn revenue. The 20-minute Prelude to Axanar will be allowed to stay on YouTube.
As part of the settlement, Axanar agreed to assure Paramount and CBS that “any future Star Trek fan films produced by Axanar or Mr. Peters will be in accordance with the ‘Guidelines for Fan Films’ distributed by CBS and Paramount in June 2016.”
About the case in general:
- All filings in the case are collected here (by the Language Creation Society [LCS]) if you want to read for yourself. This is updated regularly by me personally (I'm on the electronic filing notice list for the case). Some minor things like proofs of service are omitted.
- Very thorough general coverage of the case is at AxaMonitor. It has a significant anti-Axanar bias, but is the most thorough all-in-one-place resource on the case that I am aware of, and is very frequently updated.
- In fairness to Carlos Pedraza (who runs AxaMonitor), I mean "bias" as in the implicit sort that unavoidably nudges coverage. He does not, TTBOMK, leave out anything, he presents all the facts, etc; it's just that the interpretation is consistently anti-Axanar, as his behavior in fora. Unlike some other anti-Axanar people, he has been IME scrupulously civil.
- The Klingon language aspect of the case is covered by the LCS here. That part is probably over now.*
* Disclaimer: I am the LCS' official spokesperson about the case, and wrote/maintain everything on that page.
LCS point of view summary of case progress re #3:
Paramount claimed to own a copyright to the Klingon language itself and anything anyone might ever say in it. (We say they don't because nobody can own a language.)
We filed a hilarious amicus that gained international attention.
Paramount backed down.
While we didn't get a definitive ruling on the copyrightability of Klingon, that was unlikely. What we did successfully do was defense: we prevented negative precedent that could have happened had we not participated.
As of their last filing, Paramount was down to only wanting to claim that using Klingon was a point of similarity in Axanar, and now they're not allowed to even do that because of the MIL being granted.
Paramount does still claim to own Klingon, but they're no longer actually asserting that claim, at least in this case, because it's not necessary to the case (which is mainly about "substantial similarity", i.e. the overall Trek look & feel).
We'll continue to monitor the case but don't expect any further activity of concern to us, at least at the trial level. Appeals (by the parties, not us) might bring it up again; TBD.
As far as we're concerned, for now at least, we won what we wanted.
Outside of the in-court defensive effect, it's had a pretty large impact on US IP lawyers. Apparently our brief is starting to be used in IP law classes; it's been read very widely; virtually all lawyers (other than Paramount's) who've read it and posted about it have agreed with our position.
That means it's probably even more unlikely anyone will bring this to court again. Hopefully they'll know about our brief, be convinced that it's a frivolous claim to make that will draw strong opposition and a lot of press, and therefore won't even try.
But… if there ever is another case that implicates conlang legal issues, please do let us know. ;-)
It is seriously hilarious. The humor and use of Klingon are both intentional, for the reasons explained in the statement.
The creators of Axanar are being sued for copyright infringement
This part is pretty basic. Axanar Productions claims their film to be a full-length fan work, but is operating like a business, hiring people and taking in money (yes, Kickstarter counts for that) and Paramount is taking legal action to protect their control of the Star Trek movie franchise. CBS is in on the lawsuit as well.
Some few people are on their side.
J.J. Abrams and at least one other director associated with Star Trek came out in defense of Axanar and announced their intent to make the whole dust-up go away. Nothing ever actually came out of that backing that we can tell, and all legal actions have moved forward regardless. This may have included some folks on the production team of Star Trek Discovery, but I cannot find any reference to them at this time.
Paramount has tried to appease the fandom.
Mindful of their public state, CBS and Paramount decided to publish rules about what they would consider a "fan work" that they would not sue over. One of the most clear rules is length; anything that could be considered a full-length tv episode or full-length feature film is clearly out of bounds.
Nothing else is decided yet.
The legal actions continue, and both sides appear to have points, as the judge involved has declined summary judgement for either side and the case will go to discovery and arguments.
Nothing else relates to Discovery at all, other than the show represents the fact that Star Trek is an active franchise and of course the companies involved will enforce their own control over that franchise wherever possible.
All news links shamelessly stolen from Ars Technica.