Why the Wild West Doesn’t Work for Fandom’s Wagon Trains to the Stars

The past few weeks have been an interesting time for the volunteer PR guy with what is arguably Trek fandom’s most “visible” fan film production. Whether its receiving indirect support from the director of the latest Star Trek motion picture or a direct slapdown from TNG’s Wesley Crusher, I think it’s safe to say there’s no shortage of opinions on whether or not Axanar Productions has gone a step too far.

In my line of work, I’m used to dealing with differences of opinion.  Over 30+ years of working with business owners, politicians, organizations and the media, I’ve learned that in most cases, opposing points of view have their foundation in basic misunderstandings of fact and misinterpretations of intent. The situation Axanar Productions finds itself in today is no different.

And one of the chief areas of misunderstanding and misinterpretation relates to the subject of “rules” for fan films from CBS.

So let’s start with a quick review of where the various parties stand on this issue, what we know to be the truth and the necessity of finding some middle ground for the good of the franchise and its fans.

For starters, it’s helpful to know that Axanar Production’s Alec Peters has had a long-standing relationship with CBS and CBS licensing, in particular. He knows the people involved and has, over the past six years, developed an understanding of how the company handles its licenses for Star Trek. Since 2010, Alec has been involved with a variety of fan film productions and has discussed fan films at length with the heads of three different CBS divisions.

By October of 2012, Patty Wright, a Producer on Star Trek: New Voyages, had published a list of “Rules of Engagement” on TrekBBS that she claimed came from “Mallory, the head of CBS legal.”

Those “Rules of Engagement” were generally accepted by fan film productions, but were not, in fact, actual rules from CBS but rather notes/guidelines shared by Patty. Among them was a guideline that read:

“- you cannot ask or take donations or contributions to generally fund your production, fan film, or studio connected to it … there is no way to prove you are not making a profit from such donations. (other than a very long accounting process to CBS)”

By March of 2014, Alec’s meetings with CBS had included discussions about Prelude to Axanar.  Plans to fund and promote Prelude to Axanar included a Kickstarter campaign – not really unheard of for Star Trek fan films, but clearly a violation of the “rule” shown above.  In fact, a quick check of the Kickstarter website and one finds Star Trek projects seeking backers going back to 2010.

As an example, Star Trek: Renegades had raised almost $ 400,000 from both a Kickstarter and an Indiegogo campaign before Prelude to Axanar ever launched. If these “guidelines” were in fact accurate, CBS would have taken action against Star Trek: New Voyages and Star Trek: Renegades before Axanar ever hit Kickstarter.

Prelude to Axanar met its crowdfunding goals in March of 2014 and the 20-minute film made its premiere at San Diego Comic-Con International in July. It was posted to YouTube shortly after that and has gone on to win nearly 50 awards at various film festivals and currently has over two million views on Youtube. Crowdfunding campaigns for the Axanar feature film were held in 2014 and 2015 and raised a significant amount of money for the production of the film and the conversion of a warehouse into a soundstage.

In July of 2015 Alec reached out to Liz Kalodner, the head of CBS Licensing to set up a meeting since Axanar had raised more money than any other Star Trek fan film.  Alec wound up meeting with John Van Citters, the head of Star Trek licensing and Bill Burke, the head of CBS Consumer Products at the Las Vegas Star Trek convention.  Bill was clear that CBS would not tell any Star Trek fan film what they could do, nor what they could not do, because it was CBS’s opinion that doing so might create rights in fan films moving forward.  This has been repeated time and time again by CBS.

Then the lawsuit hit at the end of 2015.

Since then, there have been a number of people – ranging from Rod Roddenberry to Wil Wheaton to several producers of other fan films (including Patty Wright) who claim Alec and Axanar Productions broke the “rules” for fan films and that’s why the lawsuit was filed. There are two big problems with this argument:

  • We don’t know why the lawsuit was filed until Paramount and CBS decide to tell us what their motivation was; and
  • There are no “rules” for Star Trek fan films.

That’s right. There are no actual “rules” for Star Trek fan films. There are notes Patty Wright shared via TrekBBS that people accepted as guidelines (she even called them that herself), but when asked to provide the actual correspondence from which those guidelines were drawn, Patty demurred. She explained that she had signed an NDA and, as a result, she couldn’t make those documents available.

Sorry, but I didn’t buy it then and I’m not buying it now.

Why would it be okay to publish a summary of those rules, but not the actual rules themselves?  And if there were actual rules, but CBS didn’t want them shared with those people interested in fan films, what good are the rules? Secret rules on how to stay on CBS’s good side seem to me to have very little value.

The more questions I asked, the more evasive she became. But while in the absence of any evidence, I doubt the existence of any written “rules” from CBS, I don’t question Patty’s genuine interest in trying to provide some guidelines that would help fan film producers steer clear of potential problems with CBS – I just question her excuses for not admitting she didn’t have actual rules from CBS.

But my point here isn’t to call out Patty. She was well-intentioned back in October of 2012 and just got caught trying to perpetuate the status quo. But it’s time for the status quo to change.

You see, if there are no actual “rules” from CBS that can be broken (an assertion supported by Alec’s experience in dealing directly with CBS licensing), then the foundation of arguments made by Rod Roddenberry, Wil Wheaton and other producers are factually undermined. Axanar Productions couldn’t “follow the rules” because there were no rules to actually follow.

And that’s got to change.

Fan films are an extension of the relationship between franchises and their fans. The love the latter feels for the former breeds a familiarity that may, or may not, be appropriate. And when a fan – or group of fans – pick up a camera to craft their own “love letter” to the franchise, they really need to know where the boundaries are or they’re bound to step over them at some point in time.

So, where do we go from here? Hopefully, the lawsuit between CBS, Paramount and Axanar Productions will create an opportunity for a conversation about this very matter. Whether it’s the outcome or just a by-product, some formalized rules for fan film productions would provide some welcomed law and order to the “wild west” landscape that exists today.


  • Bob Franklin says:

    Does anybody really care what Wil Wheaton thinks? Never liked that guy.

    • Danny says:

      That’s not really helpful, Bob. I like Wil Wheaton, and what he has to say does carry some weight because of his own unique experiences with Star Trek and the things he’s done with his life since then. I think he may may be basing his opinion on incorrect information or he may simply feel very differently than we do about how intellectual property rights should be handled, but I still respect his opinion.

  • Ronald D. Hearn says:

    Would not an omission of facts then constitute a Lie, seems you would want some entity out there to know your rules, so as not to cross them in the first place an NDA is a copout to and or saying, I really don’t know or they don’t exist, Like the Pirate Code they’s …… just guidelines really . Well Hope for the best and make the best from whatever you have 🙂

  • David Sturm says:

    VP Mallory Levitt is easily reached in the New York offices of CBS. He’s not mythical.

    [Editor’s Note: Yes David, I know who Mallory Levitt is. SHE is a Vice President and Assistant General Counsel at CBS in New York and at the time Patty was referencing her, she was VP/AGC of Intellectual Property there.]

  • Pete Cotton says:

    “Bill was clear that CBS would not tell any Star Trek fan film what they could do, nor what they could not do, because it was CBS’s opinion that doing so might create rights in fan films moving forward.”

    That seems a pretty clear cut reason as to why there are not any rules.

    The simplest rule of all is the basis that you cannot use someone’s IP without their permission. The fact that they go after one production and not others is completely irrelevant. This is not a criminal case – there is not a requirement to pursue every infringement. If you really want to avoid getting taken to court, then don’t use other people’s IP. If you do use it and they object- I can’t really see that you have a valid argument for continuing to use their IP.

    I would like to see Axanar completed, but I do not want to see CBS/Paramount crush all fan projects just to prevent a re-occurrence of this legal fight (which is a very real possibility thanks to Axanar’s actions). I only see two options at this stage to getting the film made:

    Pay a license fee to CBS/Paramount to use their IP (as game makers do for Star Trek games) or make Axanar a non-Star Trek movie by removing Vulcans/Klingons etc. and make it a stand alone movie with it’s own ‘verse. Much in the same way that Galaxy Quest was one of the best Star trek movies ever made 🙂

    • Mike Bawden, PR Director says:

      I don’t think we’re that far apart, Pete.

      Axanar Productions wants to sit down with CBS and Paramount and find out what needs to be done to address their concerns because rather object (by calling or sending a letter), they sued. We’ve let it be known within 24 hours of receiving the paperwork on the lawsuit that we were willing to put everything on the table and see if something can be worked out. Hopefully, we’ll have that opportunity.



  • Michael Miyabara-McCaskey says:

    Funny… I was so busy reading and responding to the Rage post, I didn’t realize I wrote a response there that is basically what you said on this post hours and hours ago this morning! hahah… Very happy you posted this… as this sums up how I was feeling about the whole situation.

    i.e. the people that want Axanar to fail or disappear feel that Axanar is somehow responsible for potentially destroying all other Fan Films because of “who knows what Axanar did – but Axanar must have done something”…

    I’m happy to continue supporting Axanar, because as I said for months now, my hope is Axanar becomes the crucible that clarifies the rules for Fan Films.

    Thank you all again.

  • Stefan Leight says:

    Funny how CBS/Paramount are trying to shut down Axanar, that is based on a reference within a TOS episode, but not Star Trek New Voyages, who use existing characters from TOS. Both of which have been funded via Kickstarter.

    What am I missing here? Did somebody forget to bribe the right person, or was it not enough?

    Sorry for being sarcastic here, but this just annoys the hell out of me.

    I wish you all the luck with the legal issues. And as I have stated before, I am boycotting all future Star Trek projects from CBS/Paramount, should they continue this course. I just hope that many more will take this stance.

    Star Trek still lives because of the fans, and NOT because CBS/Paramount say so.

    • Mike Bawden, PR Director says:


      Thanks for your support.

      Just so we’re on the record about this – Axanar Productions does not condone any boycotts of other Star Trek work whether it’s produced by fans or by CBS or Paramount. We, like all fans, just want more Trek in our lives.

      The Star Trek franchise enjoys a very special relationship with its fans. It’s a relationship that all of us treasure and both PRELUDE TO AXANAR and AXANAR are our attempts to participate in that relationship. We sincerely hope the lawsuit that has been filed against us by CBS and Paramount will result, at some point, in an opportunity for us to learn what concerns the studios have with our story and approach. We’re hopeful we’ll be able to work together to find a middle ground where we can get back into production and tell the story we have to tell.

      Thanks again, Stefan. Your support, like so many other fans’ support, is what keeps us going.