Good news: Paramount and CBS' have created a way to ensure a fan film won't get sued. Bad news: The way they have done that is by issuing some seriously confusing and oppressive rules about what fans can and can't do. Image: Star Trek "The Trouble With Tribbles," CBS
Back in May, after J.J. Abrams said a lawsuit against the fan film Axanar would be going away, CBS and Paramount also said they were working on a set of guidelines that would let fans make films but also keep their copyright safe. Today's announcement doesn't mention Axanar, a lawsuit that is, as far as we can tell, still going on, but it does explain how the studios view fan films. Here's part of the announcement:
Throughout the years, many of you have expressed your love for the franchise through creative endeavours such as fan films. So today, we want to show our appreciation by bringing fan films back to their roots.
The heart of these fan films has always been about expressing one's love and passion for Star Trek. They have been about fan creativity and sharing unique stories with other fans to show admiration for the TV shows and movies. These films are a labour of love for any fan with desire, imagination and a camera.
We want to support this innovation and encourage celebrations of this beloved cultural phenomenon. It is with this perspective in mind that we are introducing a set of guidelines at Star Trek Fan Films.
"Bringing fan films back to their roots" seems to mean making sure they are low-budget, pure experiences with as little money involved as possible.
There are 10 enumerated guidelines, and while some of them seem fairly straightforward ("Fan productions cannot create or imply any association or endorsement by CBS or Paramount Pictures" and the inclusion of a disclaimer) most of them are not.
For example, the guidelines limit the length of a fan film to 15 minutes or two parts that, combined, can't be longer than 30 minutes. And the title can't say Star Trek, but it must have the subtitle "A STAR TREK FAN PRODUCTION" and the subtitle must be "in plain typeface".
Nothing in the fan film can be taken from any actual Star Trek production: No clips, reproductions or recreations. Nothing can be on-screen that was purchased unless it was officially licensed merchandise — that is, no buying a perfect uniform replica from an unlicensed but high-quality store.
And how about this fun little restriction?
The fan production must be family friendly and suitable for public presentation. Videos must not include profanity, nudity, obscenity, pornography, depictions of drugs, alcohol, tobacco, or any harmful or illegal activity, or any material that is offensive, fraudulent, defamatory, libelous, disparaging, sexually explicit, threatening, hateful, or any other inappropriate content. The content of the fan production cannot violate any individual's right of privacy.
Some of these kind of make sense, but "offensive" is a very broad category. So is the general "family friendly" requirement. Plus, we've seen the characters in the actual show drink alcohol. Yet that can't happen in a fan film?
And then there's this:
The fan production must be a real "fan" production, i.e., creators, actors and all other participants must be amateurs, cannot be compensated for their services, and cannot be currently or previously employed on any Star Trek series, films, production of DVDs or with any of CBS or Paramount Pictures' licensees.
No one who's ever worked on Star Trek in any way can ever make a fan film. No one who did VFX for one can, as a fan, do VFX for a fan film... even for no money. The bit about actors seems specifically tailored against the fan series Star Trek: New Voyages, which had cameos from George Takei and Grace Lee Whitney (who played Janice Rand).
And none of that takes into account the six-part section on how much money can be raised and how, how the film must be shown, how it can't be given out on any physical format and that it absolutely must never make any kind of profit.
These guidelines aren't requirements, obviously; they're just the only way to guarantee your fan film won't get sued. Of course, you've also got to hope that the term "guideline" is real and that they're not actual rules, because it's going to be hard to fulfil every one of these requirements.
Of course CBS and Paramount own Star Trek and it's perfectly reasonable for them to want to protect their copyright. And it's even more generous than most for them to promise no legal action against fan films that meet their guidelines. However, it's a bit rich for them to claim, as they do at the start, that they are "big believers in reasonable fan fiction and fan creativity, and, in particular, want amateur fan filmmakers to showcase their passion for Star Trek".
If that's what they want, then they need to realise that their guidelines are going to make that rather difficult.