Who owns Star Trek?
That might seem to be an odd question. Paramount owns Star Trek. They have a series of trademarks and own the copyrights on most Star Trek materials. Even seeming odd ball Star Trek products, such as the Star Fleet Battles universe games, trace back to licenses held by Paramount.
I am not contesting the truth of any of this. If someone wants to go to court over the right to produce Star Trek material from TV series to logo beer cozies, the battle goes to Paramount. The producers of Prelude to Axanar learned that the hard way. Paramount owns Star Trek in the legal sense.
However, one of the key concepts of owning something is the right to make profitable use of the property. While Paramount has this in a legal sense, in a practical sense I think that right is impeded by social forces the law cannot touch. I would argue in a very real way the ownership of Star Trek is shared by Paramount with the fan base. Paramount can restrict what the fans can do to earn income from Star Trek. However, Paramount needs the support of the fans do the same. If fan works are better Star Trek than the works produced by Paramount, the fan works will attract more attention and inhibit the ability of Paramount to make profitable use of the property.
Consider the video Star Trek Lower Decks FAILURE by Nerdrotic. Nerdrotic quotes lots of negative reactions. One of my favorites says it all “This isn’t Star Trek, this isn’t even whacky Star Trek.” I made the same observation concerning Star Trek: Discovery. Paramount was concerned enough about these reactions to a trailer of a new Star Trek series to disable the like and dislike buttons as well as commenting on the video.
In accounting there is a concept called good will. It is an intangible asset that arises when a new buyer acquires an existing business. It includes things like brand names, artist intangibles, and customer relationships. While there can be no real asset associated with Star Trek at Paramount, as it created the show I would say most of Star Trek’s value lies in something similar. It lies in that specific subset of customer relationships known as “fandom”.
To understand why I want to go to the problems of the Society for Creative Anachronism in 1992. The corporate part of the SCA, a legal entity in the state of California, attempted to impose mandatory membership to attend SCA events. Non-members could attend if they paid a surcharge on the event fee to the corporation.
This seems reasonable on the face of it. The SCA corporation puts on these events and charges for them. Why should the not be able to require you join the corporation to attend or pay a little extra to help defray the costs of running the corporation beyond just the event you are attending. That’s reasonable except for one fact.
The legal corporation does not put on a single SCA event.
SCA events are conceived by members of local groups which sponsor the event. Depending on a group’s size it must put on a certain number of events per year to maintain official group status. When the local groups, under the leadership of the kingdoms of the SCA, pushed back it seemed like the SCA might cease to exist as a group. One of the leading opponents of the fee, the economist David Freidman (son of Milton Freidman) responded to the supposed costs of non-members:
The board letter says a good deal about the costs of non-member participants–enough to make it clear that the author thinks they are a bad thing, quite aside from any current budgetary issues. It says nothing about the benefits we get from them. In the groups I have been in, across five kingdoms and twenty-five years, non-members, like members, help to cook feasts, sweep floors after events, research recipes, sew garb, sing songs–do all the things that make the SCA worthwhile. Tim Moran seems to know a rather different set of non-members than I do.
The key phrase is “do all the things that make the SCA worthwhile.” I am willing to contend that in 2020 the things that make Star Trek worthwhile are much less products of Paramount and much more products of the fan base.
What is the biggest joy of watching Star Trek? Is it watching the same episodes over and over? Sure, that’s part of it, but is that as big as going to cons, engaging in cosplay, playing role-playing games (official and unofficial)? I don’t think so. Fans have gone so far as creating not one, but two continuations of the original series and the best Star Trek film I’ve seen in years, Prelude to Axanar.
Not long after that video surface, Paramount [instituted new rules for fan films] which made the follow-up about the battle impossible to make. There are legitimate reason. Trademark, unlike copyright, must be enforced or it becomes in valid in the future.
But it is not lost on me that while official Star Trek was failing and fan productions were taking off is when the rules hit. The rules were an assertion of ownership, the right to make money off the property. In part they may have asserted that by taking superior products at a hyper competitive price, free, off the market. Going back to the Nerdrotic video, in the first minute he says:
I like Star Trek: Continues. I would take any Star Trek fan film over anything that Alex Kurtzman has given us.
Paramount must produce something exceptional to make money off of Star Trek. While much of the original series and some of The Next Generation has seeped into the public consciousness there is not enough to support generic science fiction blockbusters as the J. J. Abrams moves revenues, peaking at $467.4 million then dropping to $343.5 million. By comparison, of the 21 MCU movies released by summer 2019, only three were below Kelvin timelime Trek’s peak and only one below it’s nadir. Even the Ant Man movies out performed those three Trek films.
If Star Trek cannot sustain blockbuster event movies, Paramount has to get the core fandom onboard to create a sustained cash flow.
What exists now is 703 episodes over five series (excluding the animated series, Discovery, and Picard) and thirteen feature films. As a fan, I have a enough material to watch 16 hours a day for over three weeks. The films must appeal to hardcore fans, meaning they must be good Star Trek. Perhaps instead of a reboot universe or another unneeded sibling for Spock, Paramount should have brought the people behind the Axanar movie in house and made their film an official production instead of suing them.
So, who owns Star Trek? I would say it is a joint ownership between Paramount and the fan base. One has the legal rights to make new material, or license others to do so, and the budget to do it in the most spectacular fashion. The other lacks those funds and legal authority, but controls much more the ability of new official materials to be seen as Star Trek and tap into the potential revenue streams. The greater power may lie with fans, however, as they do not need to produce a return on either old or existing material and have enough existing material to remain connected even as their desire more.