If you’re a Star Trek fan, then chances are you’ve seen one of several excellent fan productions online: “Star Trek: Phase II.”
Originally founded as “Star Trek: New Voyages,” executive producer and star James Cawley spent tens of thousands of dollars of his own money to continue the original “Star Trek,” and has brought in some big names (including David Gerrold, Eugene W. Roddenberry and George Takei) along the way.
The popularity of “Phase II” and other similar productions like “Star Trek: Hidden Frontier” has put CBS Television in a tough spot. These fans are actively using characters, story lines and other intellectual property they own to produce their own work, but asking them to shut down would be a total public relations nightmare.
So instead, as long as fans like Cawley do not profit from their work putting together such episodes, CBS Television turns a blind eye. But even that blind eye has to take a peek eventually — and it did last month when CBS Television told writer Norman Spinrad and Cawley that they could not produce a never-filmed script from Spinrad as an episode of “Phase II.”
The move irked fans so much that it landed Spinrad, Cawley and CBS Television into the pages of The New York Times. There, CBS gets a simple sentence with their statement on why they issued a cease and desist, Cawley gets a simple sentence explaining that he has a great relationship with CBS Television and of course will follow its demand, and what seems like dozens of paragraphs of fans and writers protesting the move.
“These executives should be phasered on heavy stun,” one fan told the newspaper. That was just the ti[ of the iceberg to the “sleeping dragon” of Star Trek fans that writer David Gerrold said CBS Television probably wouldn’t want to poke. But why not?
Gerrold, who wrote the popular “Star Trek” episode “The Trouble With Tribbles,” said he was confused that CBS Television let “Phase II” film his unproduced “Star Trek: The Next Generation” script “Blood and Fire,” so why not Spinrad’s script as well?
So am I to believe that Gerrold is for copyright infringement and misappropriation of intellectual property? So if I took one of his books, and decided to adapt it into a screenplay for the Internet without Gerrold’s permission — even if I didn’t make a profit on it — Gerrold would sit back and let it happen? I doubt it. And Gerrold has every right to stop it.
Spinrad’s script does not belong to Spinrad. It belongs to CBS Television. It acquired the rights to it from Desilu Productions, which paid Spinrad $5,000 for the script it never even used. That might not sound like a lot, but $5,000 in 1967 is equivalent to about $34,000. Tell me the last time you did work for a company and received $34,000 for it, even though the company couldn’t benefit from the work you did.
Nobody is saying Cawley was trying to steal from CBS Television. Far from it. The script got some attention last year when it was “found” by a fan, and Trekkies remained interested in it even though we’re in a new year. Why not try to produce it — especially when the original writer is willing to come on board and direct.
CBS Television has indirectly invested $34,000 into that script. They have every right to try and make that money back, and that includes selling their own licensed copies of the script to fans, and even telling Cawley that if “Phase II” would like to produce it, then let’s negotiate a license fee.
It just bugs me to hear that CBS Television is being made out as the bad guy here. There is absolutely nothing legally these fan series could do if CBS Television came to them tomorrow and told them to stop production all together, and pull down past episodes from the Internet and no longer make them available for public consumption. Nothing.
Because CBS Television took a stance that if you don’t profit from it, then you can keep doing it, some fans — including a lawyer from Green Bay — think that Cawley should have the right to produce Spinrad’s script for free. But it’s not about whether you make a profit on it or not. It’s about whether you are potentially costing the copyright holder value in its ownership stake — whether it be in the form of profits or any other material fund. CBS Television allows productions like “Phase II” to continue on, even with CBS’ lawyers likely recommending against it. And at the very least, CBS Television should get credit for that.
I would’ve liked to see what Spinrad’s script would’ve looked like produced. And who knows, maybe we will. But it should be done respecting the owner of the script, and their rights to simply recoup costs, or even to make a profit on their initial investment from 45 years before. And no one should give CBS Television the cold shoulder simply because they wish to exercise the same right the rest of us would if we were put in a similar position.