Will CBS sue over this awesome 'Star Trek' replica?

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Will CBS sue over this awesome 'Star Trek' replica?

Thu Oct 14, 2010 @ 09:43AM PST

By Eriq Gardner

Will the "Star Trek" fan who created a gigantic virtual replica of the USS Enterprise in the videogame "Minecraft get sued"?

That's what some concerned citizens are asking after seeing this YouTube video that sports an insanely impressive 1:1 scale model of the famed and probably copyrighted starcraft from "Star Trek: The Next Generation."

The replica, which has been viewed nearly 1 million times on YouTube, was created in "Minecraft," a multiplayer sandbox creation game currently in alpha. The website describes the game this way: "Minecraft is a game about placing blocks while running from skeletons. Or something like that."

Problem is, some are freaking out about a possible lawsuit.

Says Ben Doernberg at Public Knowledge:

"Unfortunately, in addition to being impressive, it could easily lead to a lawsuit. 

Why? Under US copyright law, a replica of a fictional design like a spaceship could be considered a “derivative work,” meaning it is protected by the same copyright that protects 'Star Trek: The Next Generation.'

Viacom owns the Star Trek copyright.  If they decide to sue Halkun, the fact that he spent 10 (or 100) hours making his replica, that it’s made out of digital blocks, or that he doesn’t plan to make money on it may or may not protect him. Either way, in order to find out, he would have to hire a legal team to go up against Viacom.  That’s a hard (not to mention expensive) way to find out that your USS Enterprise model does not infringe on anyone’s copyright."

That might be true.Doernberg points out that lawyers for "Harry Potter" author J.K. Rowling once sued someone who made a papier-mache replica of Hogwarts' exterior. And who can forget that lawyers for George Lucas once got a federal court in California to award $20 million over replicas of Stormtroopers in the original "Star Wars" films? (That judgment couldn't be enforced because the defendant lived in Britain, where a court there held it wasn't copyrightable.)

That said, our cursory check of whether Viacom or Paramount or CBS (see update below) has ever sued fans who created replicas like this turned up nothing. Yeah, the studio has gone after some for leveraging the "Star Trek" brand, like the author of a "Trek" dating book, but given all those trekkies who attend Star Trek conventions with show-off items, we'd probably know by now whether "Trek" rights-holders are litigious or just prefer to foster fan imagination.

Will the creator of the replica USS Enterprise get sued? Probably not. The major complication, as we see it, is whether CBS feels it is forced to take action. It has already licensed the exclusive game rights to the franchise, and it's possible the licensee sees this as a threat. Or perhaps the studio doesn't want to take a chance at upsetting its contractual relationships.

We'll watch to see if a lawsuit is filed. In the meantime, if we hear any word from the studio, we'll post a response.

UPDATE: Actually, we've learned that Viacom no longer holds the rights in question. From what we hear, it's actually in sister company CBS' hands now, the result of a corporate spin-off.

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The Hollywood Reporter
The Hollywood Reporter, Esq. blog focuses on how the entertainment and media industries are impacted and influenced by the law. It is edited by Matthew Belloni with contributions from veteran legal reporter Eriq Gardner and others. Before joining The Hollywood Reporter, Belloni was a lawyer at an entertainment litigation firm in Los Angeles. He writes a column for THR devoted to entertainment law. Gardner is a New York-based writer and legal journalist. Send tips or comments to Matthew.Belloni@thr.com

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