Appeared in North Carolina State University's Technician on February 17, 1997, all rights reserved.

Trek Sites on Red Alert as Viacom Sends Fleet of Lawyers

By Marcela C. Musgrove

"Paramount Locks Phasers on Trek Fan Sites" ,"No Free Enterprise" "Wrath of Viacom", "Viacom to Trekkers: You Will Be Assimilated"

These are just a few of the headlines throughout the country describing a recent crack-down by Paramount and Viacom (Paramountís parent company) on Star Trek Web-sites. Paramount claims it is merely trying to enforce its copyright but this has not stopped some determined fans from mounting protests against what they call "greedy ferengi mentality" and "Borg-like" attempts to "assimilate the internet".

In his open letter to fans, Paramount president David Wertheimer expresses his support for fan-created Web sites and emphasizes that Paramount has no plans to write to the thousands of individual sites which are not abusing the Star Trek copyrights. "Paramount has not asked any site to Ďshut downí; it has asked Star Trek Webmasters who are either selling ads or collecting fees, selling illegal merchandise, or posting copyrighted materials on their sites to refrain from these specific activities."

In the past nine months, Paramount/Viacom has sent letters to at least nine sites to stop using images, script excerpts and other materials copyrighted by Paramount on their websites without permission. The letters requested, in legal terms, that the sites "cease and desist" from using those copyrighted materials without permission, in keeping with both U.S. and international copyright laws.

"Paramount has not asked any site to 'shut down'",he wrote. "It has asked Star Trek webmasters who are either selling ads, collecting fees, selling illegal merchandise, or posting copyrighted materials on their sites to refrain from these specific activities."

According to various sources including the official Anti-Viacom Headquarters website, Paramount/Viacom has sent letters to at least nine sites requesting that they stop using images,scripts, excerpts, and other materials on their websites which have been copyrighted by Paramount. The letters requested in legal terms, that the sites "cease and desist" from using the copyrighted materials without permission, in keeping with both U.S. and international copyright laws.

However from the point- of-view of certain Star Trek fans, the recent crack-down suspiciously coincides with the opening of the official Star Trek site on the Microsoft Network, a subscriber-only service along the lines of America Online. Microsoft Network is only accessible by people using IBM-compatible computers and Microsoft Internet Explorer, Microsoft's web browser. The most popular web browser, Netscape, cannot be used. Some fear that Paramount will try to shut down all other Star Trek sites so that fans will be forced to pay for access to the official Star Trek site. Viacom spokespeople deny the charges, stating "Itís part of a general enforcement program thatís been in place for three years".

Rick Rottman, a lifelong Trek fan, is quick to point out "Trek has not always been the cash cow that it is now. The only people that liked Star Trek were assorted fans who kept it going long after it has been canceled. Fandom helped bring Star Trek back from the ashes."

Gene Roddenbury, the now deceased founder of Star Trek credited Star Trek fans for keeping Trek alive and said in Star Trek - The New Voyages: "... we realized that there is no more profound way in which people could express what Star Trek has meant to them than by creating their very own Star Trek things."

Several of the targeted web maintainers protest that their sites only help promote Star Trek.

One of them, Mark Williams, said "Fan-run websites do not make profit for the webmasters that run them. Ergo...no damages to Paramount. They do generate free publicity and revenue for Paramount Pictures/Viacom and encourage the success of the Star Trek franchise as a whole by keeping interest high".

But Bill Willis, Vice Provost of Information Technology, said motivation did not make a difference in a company's decision to crack down on copyright violations. "I might think it's inappropriate, but a company can decide to exercise their copyright for whatever reason. If they don't take legal steps to protect it, they lose it." However, the copyright issue becomes hazy when the use of material falls under the Fair Usage Act.

According to the homepage of Terry Carroll, an attorney specializing in copyright law in cyberspace, there are four factors used to decide whether a particular use of a copyrighted work is covered by the Fair Usage Act:
(1) The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes; (2) The nature of the copyrighted work; (3) The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and (4) The effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

Mike Caudill, systems programmer at NC State, says that cases like this generally arenít worth the legal battle and if someone is accused of copyright violation, they should just take the material down. He says confusion stems when people donít realize that "just because you can download images for free doesnít mean you have the permission to display them."

Caudill can only remember one incident where NC State students were required to change their websites because of copyright infringement. Student maintainers of a Winnie the Pooh site were asked by a lawyer for EH Dutton, publisher of the Pooh books, to take copyrighted pictures of Pooh off their page. The students were quick to comply so no further problems occurred.

The crackdown by Paramount/Viacom has been the latest of recent attempts by entertainment corporations to curtail the use of scripts, photos, and sound and video clips that are easily distributed to a global audience via the internet. Disney has been closing down unauthorized Disneyland tribute pages while the Fox network has gone after sites dedicated to the "X-Files" and "The Simpsons," asking for materials to be removed. When Lucasfilm made a threatening phone call to a popular Star Wars site last April, it was confronted with a deluge of calls, faxes, and e-mails, which eventually persusaded the company to back down.

John Michael Straezynski, creator of Babylon Five, another television science fiction program, posted a letter to a newsgroup explaining how the Babylon 5 team had dealt with a similar situation. "Last year, WB(Warner Brothers) became aware of the existence of many Babylon 5 sites and the Legal Affairs Department was of a mind to take similar action(as has been taken by other shows, including the Simpsons)...When this came to our attention, we(acting as sort of fan advocates) sat down with WB Legal and discussed ways of doing it short of sending out these exact sort of letters to Babylon 5 sites. What we came to was the following understanding: that WB would not actively go after sites which used B5 photos and other material PROVIDED that the proper copyright information was appended to the material utilized."

Several fans have set up Anti-Viacom web sites, designed to rally other fans to action. They document the sites that have been taken down and have addresses of executives at Paramount to write or e-mail to. They also call for a boycott of Microsoft Network, advertisers on Star Trek programs and Star Trek merchandise. One Star Trek fan questioned the effectiveness of this saying "In all honesty, most Trek fans that I know will continue watching it even if Paramount personally sends out lawyers to physically serve anybody who has said "Star Trek" in the last six years. ... In this case, the only way to make a statement is to illustrate that Paramount is on the whole better with a fan web presence than it is without it".

Nonetheless, a segment of the Trek fan contigent continues to battle on in their quest to negotiate with Paramount/Viacom. In a plea by the Klingon Imperial Diplomatic Corps Resistance Movement, "We must make a concerted effort to make Viacom realize that what they are doing is comparable to shooting themselves in the foot; fan-run Trek sites only help promote the "franchise" and are not meant as the "copyright enfringements" as Viacom interprets them to be".Invoking a phrase commonly used by the Borg aliens on Star Trek they conclude "Remember, this time resistance *will not* be futile!!"

Where on the web:
For more information on copyright/trademark wars on the web:

  • http://www.muchmusic.com/muchmusic/cyberfax/trademark.html
    For more information on copyright law:
  • http://lcweb.loc.gov/copyright/
  • http://www.aimnet.com/~carroll/copyright/faq-home.html
    To see the official Star Trek Anti-Viacom Headquarters page:
  • http://www.stwww.com/viacom.html
    To see Paramountís response:
  • http://www.paramount.com/openletter/
    Past discussions on the Star Trek web site debate on newsgroup rec.arts.startrek.current can be accessed using DejaNews at http://www.dejanews.com.

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