Droves of Star Trek fans are boldly going onto the Internet on the eve of Friday's launch of the "Star Trek: Insurrection" movie -- posting film stills, poster images and even fan art on hundreds of Web sites. And Paramount Pictures is letting them.
This might seem like the natural order of things, but only a year ago Paramount was sending out attorney's letters to many Star Trek sites, informing them they were violating copyright laws and, in many cases, causing them to close their virtual doors.
Paramount's newly found goodwill, and that of its parent company, Viacom, underscores the 'on again, off again' nature of relationships between entertainment franchises and the fans who love them. Entertainment corporations need to maintain control of their copyrights, but they also want to encourage fan support -- and that sometimes means tolerating a little good-natured copyright violation.
Paramount seems to be in a tolerant mood at the moment. A casual survey of Trek sites turned up many whose sole purpose was to republish photos from the various series and movies, such as The Star Trek Photo Gallery. Others contain sounds, video clips and detailed plot synopses -- all of which Paramount claims are copyright violations.
The company says it has an obligation to protect its copyrights and trademarks, or it risks forfeiting them. "Officially, if it's a copyright infringement we'll do what needs to be done to deal with it," said a company spokesman, who asked not to be named. "But the Web is huge place, and we're not actively searching out fan sites."
For some, however, the memory of receiving a letter from a Paramount attorney still rankles. "I do not think that they should interfere with individuals showing their dedication to this phenomenon called Star Trek," said Trekker Paul Leclair, in a statement on his Web site, which protests Paramount's actions. "If anything, these folks are promoting the show and products."
But Paramount, and other holders of entertainment-franchise copyrights, has a large degree of discretion in protecting its property, according to legal analysts. "To me, it doesn't cut one way or the other," said Rich Gray, an anti-trust and intellectual property partner with Bergeson, Eliopoulos, Grady & Gray. "If it's not authorised or licensed content, it doesn't matter that [the fans'] intentions may be supportive."
Some material can be distributed under "fair use" -- the provision that allows journalists to print copyrighted material for review or reporting purposes. But "fair use doesn't go that far," Gray said. That hasn't stopped other franchises from embracing Internet fan-dom wholeheartedly, as a promotional tool.
Chris Carter, creator of the popular television series "X-Files," at one time read all the messages posted to "X-Files" message boards. J. Michael Straczynski, who came up with the Babylon Five sci-fi series, is also involved with his fan base, and encourages Web sites centred on the series.
On the flip side, the creators of this year's "Godzilla" feature film tried (with partial success) to block fan sites from publishing any material hinting at what their monster would look like. However, their official "Godzilla" site linked to several fan sites and attempted to foster interest within the Internet community.
For now, Paramount seems to be taking a hands-off approach, and some fans say the company's aggressiveness has been exaggerated. "Viacom are not the evil people [some fans] make out," said a co-creator of the Star Trek Central Web site, who goes by the handle Zek. "As with many things hysteria takes over."
Zek pointed out that Paramount only sent letters to a few Star Trek sites, although the way those were chosen is difficult to determine. At any rate, Zek pointed out, one characteristic of Star Trek Web sites would make them difficult to contain: Like Tribbles, "there are so many of them!"