The fan-run, nonprofit project “Stage 9” was a staggeringly complete recreation of the U.S.S. Enterprise 1701-D, offering fans a virtual reality experience that made every Trek fan’s heart beat faster. You could download – for free – a self-guided tour of the ship. The simulation featured working control panels, sound effects, a turbolift that would take you from deck to deck, and even crewmen to populate the ship to make it seem alive. You could launch a shuttlecraft and pilot it yourself to get a look at the outside of the ship, and even land on it and walk out onto the hull.
All that is now gone, thanks to a cease and desist order delivered to project coordinator Rob Bryan on September 12. The download – and in fact the entire web site at https://stage-9.co.uk/ – are now gone. All that remains are the words “Live long and prosper.”
Rob always knew that eventually there could come a cease and desist order from CBS, even though there had never been any charge for the downloads and no money was being made from the project.
There’s Fair, and There’s Law
What seems fair and reasonable to the Star Trek fans isn’t always compatible with trademark and copyright law. The film Axanar ran aground when CBS decided that Alec Peter’s fan film was of high enough quality and resembled the general story arc in their upcoming Star Trek: Discovery series closely enough to be a threat to the marketing of the real thing. Once Axanar had attracted the attention of CBS, some drill-down revealed some questionable economic practices that suggested that that project was being done at least in part for profit – a violation of the principles of trademark and copyright – so, on the one hand, you have what looks like a labor of love being squashed by the studio, and on the other, what looks to the public (and to the studio) like a sneaky way of launching your own for-profit production company. What you see when you look at the situation depends on where you happen to be standing at the time.
When Ubisoft’s Bridge Crew emerged late last year, the writing was on the wall. It was only a matter of time before CBS had to respond to the existence of the Stage 9 project because it impinged upon the exclusive licensing they had sold to Ubisoft for the popular VR game. Unlike Axanar, with Stage 9 there was no crowdfunding campaign, no potentially dodgy financing going on, and no actual planned merchandising intent or scheme.
The way trademarks work requires that you defend your trademark vigorously, or risk losing the right to do so; therefore, when Bridge Crew got DLC (downloadable content) that let you play the game as though you were on the bridge of the Enterprise D, suddenly Stage 9 was directly in the crosshairs. Since CBS had sold exclusive VR rights to the Enterprise D to Ubisoft, there was really only one option open to them.
CBS’s reputation with the fans is already on a pretty bad footing, and the fact that they didn’t try to work something out with Rob Bryan will just add more salt to an already open wound. Dozens of fans contributed to the Stage 9 project, contributing hundreds of hours of volunteer service to it and making it an amazing experience in VR. It’s very sad to see a spontaneous flame of creativity in Star Trek fandom be extinguished this way. It’s like CBS came into your kitchen and ripped a drawing of the Enterprise off your refrigerator door.
Here is a final statement from the creator.
Efforts to contact the CBS legal department fell on deaf ears. The project would not be allowed to continue in any form regardless of any changes that might have been made, and in typical CBS fashion, the Stage 9 project was unilaterally eliminated without any opportunity for open dialog.
Lucasfilm has a much better relationship with Star Wars fans,and the result is a wildy thriving, devoted fan base. Being nicer to fans might be a better marketing strategy than just looking to the quarterly reports, and there is informal evidence to support the idea.
Concerns that CBS might be coming after the myriad model download sites on the ‘net that carry fan made Trek models are probably overblown, however, since none of those create an immersive experience like what’s currently in the Star Trek merchandising pipeline.
Back at the core of the CBS Star Trek delivery system, though, things aren’t all that rosey. CBS All Access, the only legal portal through which one may watch Star Trek: Discovery in the United States, appears to be doing okay, but merely okay. In recent reports in industry publications, it is said that the streaming portal currently has about 2.5 million subscribers. In September of 2017, they had 1.5 million subscribers, and in 2016 they had about one million.
The rate at which they are adding new customers could be on an exponential curve right now, doubling the rate of increase every year. If that’s true, then CBS may well be on track to hit 8 million by 2019. However, the more likely scenario is that the rate of new subscriptions is merely increasing by half a million a year, rather than simply doubling. This would make their claims of being able to reach 16 million subscribers by 2022 seem farfetched. 11.5 million subscribers is far more likely.