The Viacom Crackdown

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The Viacom/Paramount Crackdown (1995, 2005) was an attempt, one that was often successful, by TPTB to shut down fan sites, close down fan publications, and/or extract licensing fees for fans using source texts that Viacom and Paramount owned. This crackdown was especially damaging to fans in the UK and Australia.

Contents

Australia: A Report on the Letter Received

While there were several attempts to control and limit fannish activities, the largest took place in Australia in March 2005.

This is a report that was sent to and printed in several Star Trek newsletters in spring of 1995:

"Austrek (Australia's largest Star Trek club) was invited by the Australian representatives of Paramount Pictures to attend a meeting on Monday 20th March 1995 with a senior official from Paramount's Licensing Department, as were representatives from other Star Trek fan clubs throughout Australia. Rowena Christiansen and I attended to represent Austrek's interests at this meeting, for which no agenda was provided beforehand. To put things in factual terms, Paramount's representative communicated the following points:
  • Paramount's position is that fan clubs have been costing it money by using its intellectual property without paying for this use. That will stop.
  • No Star Trek videos of any kind are to be shown at meetings of any club. (An application for a non-theatrical license would be considered, but only for episodes that had been televised here in Australia and released on sell-through video in Australia).
  • No unlicensed or non-locally sourced licensed Star Trek materials are to be sold by fan clubs.
  • There will be no more unlicensed conventions. All Star Trek conventions MUST be licensed but they will not be exclusive to Star Trek: The Official Fan Club of Australia.
The issues that are still to be resolved include whether fan clubs can describe themselves as Star Trek fan clubs, eg. in their names, and the continuing production of club newsletters.
We were informed that Australia is the first country for the introduction of these new guidelines but that these changes will be made world-wide. The official stated that Paramount does not wish to close down Star Trek fan clubs but it will be resolute and vigilant in protecting its intellectual property in order to ensure its continued profitability. Legal action will be forthcoming where breaches occur." [1]

Paramount’s actions against Australian fandom were also vigorously debated in Shayne McCormack's letterzine So You Say and Joanne Kerr's slash letterzine Short Circuit.

Australia's fan club reactions were divided. Some fanzines, like the long standing and well-respected Austrek, folded. Other clubs decided to wait until non-fannish court challenges to the GATT treaty (the basis of some of Viacom's letters to fan clubs) was finalized. Convention organizers also considered abandoning the semi-pro fan conventions that had been the staple of Star Trek fandom for the past 20+ years and dropping actors and other Star Trek cast members as official guests. [2]

UK's Reporting

A British newsletter, CCSTSG Enterprises, published by Jeffrey Mills, also carried reports from three other Star Trek fandom sources in 1995. According to Jeffrey:

The following reports suggest that the climate may be changing with respect to Paramount's attitude toward Star Trek fandom. It is possible that directives from new mother corporation Viacom are driving this stance. But whatever the cause, most agree it amounts to an arrow aimed at the heart of the Golden Goose. This first item, Exhibit A, was passed on to me by a subscriber and originally ran in the fanzine of AUSTREK, an Australian Star Trek club. It is rumoured that similar actions are already being taken in Great Britain:
[see the letter in Australia: A Report on the Letter Received above]

Exhibit B appeared in a recent issue of IDIC, a most excellent bi-monthly Star Trek fanzine published in Scotland.

"Janet recently posted a TNG zine advertisement on rec.arts.startrek.misc and rec.arts.startrek.fandom for a US member who didn't have Internet access. She had seen people selling items on the newsgroups and didn't think there would be a problem. Unfortunately the member got a nasty shock when he received a letter from Paramount threatening to sue him for copyright infringement if he did not immediately cooperate with them. We are not sure what is happening here as we've never heard of Paramount objecting to fanzines. Also they had Janet's e-mail address but contacted the member direct--we wonder if this is because Janet is in the UK and he is in the US. Also, the Usenet is a fairly friendly and informative place but no one contacted Janet saying that it is not advisable to advertise fanzines. Janet was going to post a message onto the newsgroups to enquire whether this has happened before but on second thought we've decided it is best not to risk inflaming the situation. Our advice to members with Internet access is be careful what you say--the Paramount sharks are listening."

This last exhibit was posted recently on one of the Trek newsgroups:

"I posted an article a month or so ago and I made reference to a guy on TV who was pretending to act out parts of Generations during commercials on Star Trek.
Paramount phoned me (!) about an hour later demanding to know what station this person was affiliated with, where he got the script, and a dozen other questions.
So, not only do they read the group, they scrutinize each and every posting, it seems. I am not impressed."

UK Fandom's Reaction

  • "Viacom closed down Trek fanzines in Australia, one of the few countries where there isn’t a technicality in the law that allows them to continue." [3]
  • "There has been no news from Paramount/Viacom concerning the future of Star Trek fandom in the UK so perhaps no news is good news.... We had expected to hear something by now but, as we haven't, I think it prudent to take a 'wait and see' attitude. While we should be concerned about their interference, Spock would be quick to remind us that it is pointless to worry about what may possibly happen; we will cross that bridge when we come to it. However, I am fervently hoping that clubs like STAG will be allowed to continue without having to pay a license fee." [4]
  • "I found the article on the future of Star Trek fandom most interesting. Paramount is obviously determined to "live long and prosper', economically that is. In the 60s certain executives had Star Trek dead and buried. It was the fans who rescued and nurtured Star Trek during the wilderness years of the 70s, demanding it should be given another chance. The inflationary success of the ST experience during the 1980s, the films and TNG owe much to that fandom. I fear the argument in question is not over the ownership of ideas but over money. There is an unpleasant smell of greed in the air. Perhaps Paramount is being run by the Ferengi! Over the past ten years Star Trek has been a nice little earner for Paramount. And now do they wish to squeeze every last penny out of it in the hope that their bank account will 'boldly go where none have gone before'? I hope I am wrong but it does seem to be a classic case of biting the hand that feeds it." [5]
  • "I imagine that most, if not all, Star Trek fans will be quite horrified at reading about Paramount trying to snub out the fan-run clubs and conventions. I certainly was! It is, of course, typical of Paramount to come up with such a thing; they tried to do away with Star Trek in the first place, at the end of the second season of Classic Trek. It was the fans in the USA who persuaded them to allow a third season via a letter writing campaign. At the end of the third season Paramount probably thought that it was indeed the end of Star Trek. It was the fans who kept the name of Star Trek alive and it was because of the fans that the films, TNG, DS9 and Voyager have come along. They never learn, do they?" [6]
  • "...Paramount (the owners) won't come cheap for a licence. They may charge a smaller fee for fan-run clubs and conventions but that would mean the fans will still have to pay more to cover the fees, and that "more' will go into Paramount's pockets. I think it is about time we told Paramount what we think about all this. We have not been costing Paramount money at all; indeed, Star Trek clubs and fans promote Star Trek. Come off it Paramount, we are Star Trek fans and we are not stupid!" [7]
  • "Star Trek: Fandom or Commercial Commodity? Once Star Trek was some sort of show, not to be taken too seriously. Now, however, the "powers that be' have woken up! Not only can they see that there is money to be made from this, but a lot of money! So, instead of working alongside the world of fandom, instead of working together with the fan market already established, they seemed to have decided to totally take over, not only by running the show for themselves, but by also totally swallowing up everything in their path. This means out go fan-run conventions, in come the newfangled commercial and glitzy productions/conventions. Out go the fan written zines with their home drawn pictures and home spun poems, and in come glossy, snazzy magazines and books with eyecatching designs. Out go the polystyrene sets that wobble, and in come the computer-designed, attention-grabbing special effects, complete with as many gismos and gadgets that the retailer can stock." [8]
  • "I read the article regarding Paramount's dictatorial attitude as to what fans will and will not be allowed to do in the future and I can honestly say I find their attitude disgraceful. They are acting purely out of greed. They make more than enough money out of Trek fans and I fail to see how showing videos at cons and club meetings is going to make the slightest bit of difference to their huge profits. Why should fan run conventions be licenced? I can understand licencing the huge profit-making US cons, but it's out of order to try and licence cons where the main use of their profits is to give it to charity; does Paramount want that money as well? I think they should be told to keep their greedy hands off our conventions and fan clubs and that whatever rules and regulations they try to impose should be completely ignored. They can't sue the whole world, can they?" [9]
  • "I want to comment on the future of fandom; what a nerve Paramount has trying to dictate to us what we can and cannot do. Don't they realise that without our support ST would not be what it is today? Having said that, however, I don't just love ST because Paramount made it. I love ST for what it represents for the future. Paramount cancelled ST, then we, the fans, still watched it and produced fanzines etc. We still supported it when Paramount didn't and now they have the gall to say we can't use the name Star Trek for our fan clubs, or even produce newsletters. What would happen if we suddenly stopped buying anything ST? This would hit them where it hurts most, but they know fans will (myself included) continue to buy ST merchandise. I hope this situation is resolved; if not I fear the worst for fandom. Have Paramount nothing better to do than dictate to us, the loyal, faithful, fans? Whatever happens, Paramount can't take away our love for Star Trek." [10]
  • "The British Star Trek conventions have had it their own way for over twenty years and now it seems that Paramount may be going to crack down on them. Well, everything must come to an end. British Star Trek conventions are run by a clique, a group of people who wouldn't like Paramount to take away their power. The attendees are getting a raw deal at British Conventions these days. The Business Meeting rules are a big joke. The only rule should be "the convention is for the attendees", and not all the mumbo jumbo they have now. If it's going to take Paramount to take away the influence of this clique, then so be it. The Generations convention was a turning point in U.K. conventions. It was competition for the fan run conventions and, like the film, it was the start of a new era, and the end of an old one." [11]
  • "Their proposed action is insane! Why don't they leave the humble and modest D.I.Y. Star Trek fan clubs alone? These clubs only want to share ideas and experiences, all for the love of Star Trek. Paramount gets enough money from the episodes and merchandise. They're nothing but a bunch of hypocrites who didn't want Star Trek in the first place!" [12]
  • "I also want to comment on this bullying of the fan clubs and cons by Paramount referred to in newsletter 119. I cannot tell you how outraged this made me. How greedy and ungrateful can they be? If it wasn't for all us fans doing our bit over the years they wouldn't have all the billions of dollars Star Trek has made for them. The fans make no money and do it for the love of it. I think the fans should do an organised boycott in response, of Paramount's movies, Star Trek programmes and related items to make our feelings known to them. It's just warp ten greed on Paramount's part and is sickening." [13]
  • "I would like to add my thoughts on this new move by Paramount. It seems to me that it is just another way for the fat cats of this world to get a few more dollars out of us. I agree with [N L] (newsletter 119) that a lot of what goes on in fandom comes from us, the fans, which stems from earlier times when Paramount did not really want Star Trek and it was kept alive by its loyal fans with their home produced merchandise and zines. But look now at the new fans and the sudden explosion of merchandise produced for them by Paramount under the clever ploy that this or that is very collectable; I find it disgusting that they can and do rip off loyal supporters. I know that to some it may sound cynical but a lot of us have to work hard for our cash; we just want to be treated fairly and not taken for a ride. Our clubs and cons are run by fans who put in a lot of time and effort for no personal gain; Paramount should let us keep what is ours." [14]

US Fannish Reaction

Even with increasing fandom use of the Internet, information was slow to reach US fans about Viacom’s attempts to squelch Star Trek fandom in Australia and it took US fans a while to piece together what was happening overseas. Henry Jenkins had traveled to Australia in the summer of 1995, and upon his return discussed the situation on the ACAFEN mailing list and also in the Strange Bedfellows APA. Some wondered whether recent efforts by academics to openly discuss fandom might be contributing to the crackdown. However, others noted that Viacom was a new player in fandom, tended to see fandom as passive consumers and did not understand either the history or the importance of fan communities and how they contributed to their bottom line. [15]

On the Virgule-L mailing list, both US, UK, and Australian fans were also discussing the crackdown. A few Australian fans confirmed much of what Jeremy had reported in his UK newsletter and what Henry Jenkins had heard on his Australian travels. The discussion focused on whether Paramount’s actions violated the Australian Constitution which, at the time, allowed its citizens to gather and form fan clubs, even ones that referenced trademarked names. There was speculation whether the actions were the result of Paramount trying to recoup lost revenue after the supporting actors of Star Trek successfully sued for lost action figure royalties. Newspaper articles published in Australia at the time mentioned that Paramount was invoking the recently signed GATT treaty against the Star Trek fan clubs, sending “cease and desist” orders against clubs that sold small amounts of fan made merchandise (hand painted t-shirts, key rings made of recycled old magazine photos). The more corporate savvy pointed out that the harassment of fan clubs coincided with Viacom’s purchase of Paramount and signaled, to many, an permanent shift in the overall fan-creator relationship. A minority opinion was that Paramount’s actions should not have come as a surprise as the lines between official and unofficial fan clubs in Australia had become blurred over the past decade. For example, one fan club had begun charging admission to watch episodes that had not yet aired in Australia. This led to others to wonder if fan club infighting may have led fan clubs to turn to Paramount to settle disputes. Once Paramount’s attention had been pulled towards Australia, the crackdown on fan clubs would be a logical conclusion. Many disagreed with this latter interpretation, feeling that this was a corporate shift by the new owner Viacom against fandom as a whole. Australia just happened to be the easier target (hence Viacom’s statements that it was using Australia as a “test” case). [16]

In a 1997 issue of Now Voyager, the zined writes an introduction about print zines which brings up both the crackdown and, ironically, Paramount's dependence on the very thing it was trying to squelch: "As everyone has surely noticed, there have been no new episodes of Voyager... If you've been depressed about that, think about how Classic Trek fans felt in 1969, when the show was cancelled and there were no prospects for any more Trek, ever! Fortunately, those fans had fanzines. These collections of amateur stories, poetry, and artwork sustained Trek for more than a decade while Paramount devised ways to turn the syndicated success of Trek into a new source of revenue. Recently, the net has cut into zine production--free stories can't be beat, even if they're rarely illustrated like zines. While Viacom's crackdown on fan activities has scared off even some long-time distributors, there are still terrific zines around." [17]

American fans did express a certain healthy level of paranoia as a result of these reports. Some fans decided to keep a lower profile by avoiding the use of the phrase “Star Trek” in online posts. Others pointed out that active, media-producing Star Trek fans were still small fish in a big pond and that there would be little impact to fandom. In the end, the latter group proved to be correct – at least in the US.

Other Attempts To Control Fandom

The 1995 Australia crackdown was not Viacom's first attempt to grab control of Star Trek fannish activities. On April 15, 1994, David Weinstein posted to rec.arts.startrek.fandom that

Paramount has been cracking down on persons who post fan fiction on CompuServe, Prodigy, and other computer-based subscriber services, and has demanded that this practice cease and all fan fiction stored in archives accessible through this medium be removed. While the Internet, Usenet, or Bitnet services that are usually free of charge have so far not been targeted, Paramount realizes that fan fiction, which fully or in part violates copyright laws, is an attraction that draws new subscribers to the commercial services, and thus profit can be made from it.[18]

While the 1995 Australian fan club efforts may have been more successful, Viacom was unable to stop the online fan communities from carrying on with their 20+ year tradition of writing and posting fan fiction. This has not stopped Viacom from continuing to try as evidenced by its ongoing efforts to shut down Youtube.[19]

References

  1. from Star Trek Action Group #119 and the June issue of IDIC
  2. Source: Morgan Dawn's personal notes, accessed Feb. 16, 2012.
  3. Sue Bursztynski Blogspot, posted 1.2007, accessed 9.2011
  4. from Star Trek Action Group #120
  5. from Star Trek Action Group #120
  6. from Star Trek Action Group #120
  7. from Star Trek Action Group #120
  8. from Star Trek Action Group #120
  9. from Star Trek Action Group #120
  10. from Star Trek Action Group #120
  11. from Star Trek Action Group #120
  12. from Star Trek Action Group #121
  13. from Star Trek Action Group #121
  14. from Star Trek Action Group #121
  15. Source: Morgan Dawn’s personal notes, accessed February 17, 2012.
  16. Source: Morgan Dawn’s personal notes, accessed February 17, 2012.
  17. from Now Voyager #18
  18. Viacom purchased Paramount in February 1994: Viacom Apparent Victor in Battle to Buy Paramount published in the Los Angeles Time February 15, 1994; accessed February 17, 2012.
  19. 5 years later, Viacom still suing YouTube out of “principle” published January 31, 2012; accessed February 17, 2012.
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