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The Ethics of Computer-Generated Actors

CASE STUDY: The Ethical Challenges of CGI Actors in Films

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By Lucasfilm

Photo: LucasFilm

Long-dead actors continue to achieve a sort of immortality in their films. A new controversy over dead actors is coming to life based upon new uses of visual effects and computer-generated imagery (CGI). Instead of simply using CGI to create stunning action sequences, gorgeous backdrops, and imaginary monsters, film makers have started to use its technological wonders to bring back actors from the grave. What ethical problems circle around the use of digital reincarnations in film making?

The use of CGI to change the look of actors is nothing new. For instance, many films have used such CGI methods to digitally de-age actors with striking results (like those found in the Marvel films), or to create spectacular creatures without much physical reality (such as “Golem” in The Lord of the Rings series). What happens when CGI places an actor into a film through the intervention of technology? A recent example of digital reincarnation in the film industry is found in Fast and Furious 7, where Paul Walker had to be digitally recreated due to his untimely death in the middle of the film’s production. Walker’s brothers had to step in to give a physical form for the visual effect artists to finish off Walker’s character in the movie, and the results brought about mixed reviews as some viewers thought it was “odd” that they were seeing a deceased actor on screen that was recreated digitally. However, many argue that this was the best course of action to take in order to complete film production and honor Paul Walker’s work and character.

Other recent films have continued to bet on using CGI to help recreate characters on the silver screen. For instance, 2016’s Rogue One: A Star War Story used advanced CGI techniques that hint at the ethical problems that lie ahead for film-makers. Peter Cushing was first featured in 1977’s Star Wars: A New Hope as Grand Moff Tarkin. In the Star Wars timeline, the events that take place in Rogue One lead directly into A New Hope, so the story writers behind the recent Rogue One felt inclined to include Grand Moff Tarkin as a key character in the events leading up to the next film. There was one problem, however: Peter Cushing died in 1994. The film producers were faced with an interesting problem and ultimately decided to use CGI to digitally resurrect Cushing from the grave to reprise his role as the Imperial officer. The result of this addition of Grand Moff Tarkin in the final cut of the film sent shockwaves across the Star Wars fandom, with some presenting arguments in defense of adding Cushing’s character into the film by claiming that “actors don’t own characters” ( and that the fact that the character looked the same over the course of the fictional timeline enhanced the aesthetic effects of the movies. Others, like Catherine Shoard, were more critical. She condemned the film’s risky choice saying, “though Cushing’s estate approved his use in Rogue One, I’m not convinced that if I had built up a formidable acting career, I’d then want to turn in a performance I had bupkis to do with.” Rich Haridy of New Atlas also expressed some criticism over the use of Peter Cushing in the recent Star Wars film by writing, “there is something inherently unnerving about watching such a perfect simulacrum of someone you know cannot exist.”

This use of CGI to bring back dead actors and place them into film raises troubling questions about consent. Assuming that actors should only appear in films that they choose to, how can we be assured that such post-mortem uses are consistent with the actor’s wishes?  Is gaining permission from the relatives of the deceased enough to use an actor’s image or likeness? Additionally, the possibility is increased that CGI can be used to bring unwilling figures into a film. Many films have employed look-alikes to bring presidents or historical figures into a narrative; the possibility of using CGI to bring in exact versions of actors and celebrities into films does not seem that different from this tactic. This filmic use of CGI actors also extends our worries over “deepfakes” (AI-created fake videos) and falsified videos into the murkier realm of fictional products and narratives. While we like continuity in actors as a way to preserve our illusion of reality in films, what ethical pitfalls await us as we CGI the undead—or the unwilling—into our films or artworks?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What values are in conflict when filmmakers want to use CGI to place a deceased actor into a film?
  2. What is different about placing a currently living actor into a film through the use of CGI? How does the use of CGI differ from using realistic “look-alike” actors?
  3. What sort of limits would you place on the use of CGI versions of deceased actors? How would you prevent unethical use of deceased actors?
  4. How should society balance concerns with an actor’s (or celebrity’s) public image with an artist’s need to be creative with the tools at their disposal?
  5. What ethical questions would be raised by using CGI to insert “extras,” and not central characters, into a film?

Further Information:

Haridy, R. (2016, December 19). “Star Wars: Rogue One and Hollywood’s trip through the uncanny valley.” Available at:

Langshaw, M. (2017, August 02). “8 Disturbing Times Actors Were Brought Back From The Dead By CGI.” Available at:

Shoard, C. (2016, December 21). “Peter Cushing is dead. Rogue One’s resurrection is a digital indignity“. The Guardian. Available at:

The Tylt. Should Hollywood use CGI to replace dead actors in movies? Available at:


William Cuellar & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
February 12, 2019

Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational uses. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

Media Freedom and the Middle East

The Center for Media Engagement and Media Ethics Initiative Present:

Media Freedom and the Middle East: Pursuing a Self-Regulatory Approach in Qatar

Dr. Amy Kristin Sanders

Associate Professor of Journalism
University of Texas at Austin

February 19 (Tuesday) ¦  3:30-4:30PM  ¦  BMC 5.208

51029404_2408295489401964_2027402130544918528_oLaws throughout the Middle East and North Africa dramatically limit freedom of expression by prohibiting journalists from engaging in basic newsgathering functions, including taking video and photos in public. Historically, journalists and the general public alike have faced potential criminal punishment for violation of these laws, which also often prohibit the publication of information deemed offensive, embarrassing or sensitive. Recently, however, Qatar has begun to explore ways to promote media freedom and Western investment in media through the initiation of the Qatar Media Hub. Organizations operating through the QMH would ascribe to a code of professional ethics as a means of regulation, potentially taking them outside the scope of traditional criminal law. During a recent consulting trip to the country, I urged government leaders to adopt this self-regulatory approach in lieu of traditional government regulation as a means of advancing free expression. My current work explores the benefits of ethical self-regulation as well as global approaches to media self-regulation in the hope of drafting a workable model for Qatar’s new initiative.

Dr. Amy Kristin Sanders is an award-winning former journalist, licensed attorney and associate professor. Before joining the faculty of The University of Texas at Austin, she taught for more than four years at Northwestern University’s campus in Doha, Qatar. Her research focuses on the intersection of law and new technology as it relates to media freedom. Specifically, she focuses on international and comparative media law and policy issues, including media freedom, Internet governance, social media and digital literacy. She has authored more than 20 scholarly articles in numerous law reviews and mass communication journals, and she is a co-author of the widely recognized casebook “First Amendment and the Fourth Estate: The Law of Mass Media.”

The Media Ethics Initiative is part of the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. Follow MEI and CME on Facebook for more information. Media Ethics Initiative events are open and free to the public.


When Does Artistic Creativity Become the Exploitation of Children?

CASE STUDY: Photographic Art and Ethics

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Photo: Lee / CC BY-SA 2.0 / Modified

Art foregrounds creativity, imagination, and often includes materials that are meant to shock us out of our ordinary approaches to the world and life. But when does art transgress ethical boundaries normally thought to be operative in relationships among human agents? This debate about the relationship between artistic creativity and ethical norms is on display in the controversy surrounding the work of Sally Mann. Mann is an American photographer famous for her artworks consisting of large black and white photos. She is the mother of three children—Emmett, Jessie, and Virginia—who played the protagonists in her third, and most controversial, photographic book, Immediate Family (1992). Included in the work were 65 pictures of her children carrying on in their everyday lives from the mid-1980s until they reached puberty; causing the bulk of the controversy were 13 pictures of her children in the nude, then aged eleven, nine, and five years old. These naked and often-vulnerable posed pictures of her children caused critics to raise concerns about the work involving child exploitation and child pornography.

One of such critics is Valerie Osbourne. After viewing a picture of Jessie posed on the ground only in rubber galoshes and panties included in Immediate Family, she writes that “She appears so vulnerable and so frail, yet her gaze is so enticing. The image is taken from above, objectifying her. Her gaze falls directly into the lens as if beckoning the viewer to come join her. The name again suggests something sexual and playful; ‘Dirty Jessie.’ This image becomes the most sexual due to the positioning of the camera above her, and the semi-modest touching of her nipples” (Osbourne, 2006).

In this critique, Osbourne points out a common charge among Sally Mann’s critics: her work relies on or emphasizes the sexualization of her children. Others have also condemned her work as being ‘unnecessary’ and “problematic” (Cohen, 2018). Critics are also concerned about the repercussions the photographs would have on the children as they grow older. From posing with cigarettes and “lolita” glasses to pretending to be garroted or strangled in Mann’s photographs, detractors wondered whether Mann was providing them with “props whose dark associations they [couldn’t] begin to understand. Rather than preserving their innocence, the photographs seem[ed] to accelerate their maturity by relying on the knowingness of the viewer” (Woodward, 1992). In fact, after seeking advice from a federal prosecutor, Mann was informed that no less than eight of her pictures could be cause for her arrest (Woodward, 1992). While she may not intended these photographs to be taken in a sexualized fashion, some worry that overzealous or disturbed individuals might see them in this way. This may have been the case when one male fan of her work wrote to her editors, journalists, and the children’s school seeking more information about Mann’s children. Others worry about whether any consent given by her children was valid due to their very young age and lack of them truly understanding the repercussions that being featured in such photographs might bring. They also speculated whether her status as their parent could have unduly influenced her children’s willingness to take part in this artistic project.

Mann defended her work by stating that she had originally not planned to publish the photo books until her children were older and were no longer children. She says in an interview with the New York Times that such a delay was rejected by her children; they were angered, she reports, by her unilateral plan to delay publication. To placate them, she compromised and promised that she would publish the book only after they had met with a psychologist in order to make sure they understood their decision fully. She also gave the children veto power over the pictures included in the photobook; 13 year-old Emmett used his veto to remove a picture of him with socks on his hands and 7-year-old Virginia rejected a picture of her urinating. Furthermore, individual interviews conducted with the children when the book was published and they corroborated their willingness to be portrayed in Immediate Family. Jessie was quoted as saying in her interview that “I have no objections, none. The few times I don’t like it is when I have a friend over and I’m just in my room and Mom says, ‘Picture time,’ and I don’t really want to do it” (Woodward, 1992). Furthermore, Mann vowed that if she ever thought even for a moment that the pictures would harm her children, she would immediately stop. She argued that her photographs had nothing morbid or exploitative in them and only wished that people could see them as she saw them, natural, just like the pictures she had from her childhood taken by her dad.

Although there has not been any legal actions taken against Sally Mann and her photographs, that has not stopped her critics from protesting the book’s release and continued availability. The director of Belfast Exposed photography gallery, Pauline Hadaway, says, “naked or not, exhibitions of children can be precarious, and what is OK or not can be arbitrarily decided” (Jenkins, 2010). Where does creativity in photographic art end and exploitation of children begin?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What values are in conflict in the artworks of Sally Mann?
  2. Do you think it is important—or even possible—to get informed consent from her children for their photos to be included in Mann’s book?
  3. What general limits should our concerns over the exploitation of children put on artistic creativity? How far can artists go in using children in their artworks?
  4. If you find Mann’s use of her children in her art troubling, is there anything she could have done to produce similar works in an ethical fashion?

Further Information:

Cohen, Alina. “Why Sally Mann’s Photographs of Her Children Can Still Make Viewers Uncomfortable.” Artsy, January 4, 2018. Available at:

Jenkins, Tiffany. “Art or Abuse? A Lament for Lost Innocence.” The Independent, September 14, 2010. Available at:

Osborn, Valerie. “Sally Mann’s ‘Immediate Family’ – The Unflinching and Unafraid Childhood (2006).” ASX, October 26, 2006. Available at:

Woodward, Richard B. “The Disturbing Photography of Sally Mann.” The New York Times, New York Times, September 27, 1992. Available at:


Oluwasemilor Adeoluwa & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
January 18, 2019

Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational uses. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

When Actors Become Characters

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Digital Real-Person Fan Fiction

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In the world of fan fiction, there is a thin line between creative works by fans who admire and take inspiration from their favorite celebrities and stories that might be harmful to that person’s identity and reputation. A popular subgenre within the fanfiction world is called “real-person fanfiction” or RPF. This subgenre of fanfiction occurs when fans write their favorite public figures—including actors, athletes, and musicians—into fictional stories. These realities are created, owned, and controlled by fans, leading to a wide array of creative and sometimes disturbing storylines. For instance, one story depicts an adulterous affairs between Joe Biden and Barack Obama, whereas another story is titled “Jesus and Hitler: A Romance.” The latter story is controversial precisely because of narrative events such as the following: “‘I’ve never been with a man, either, Jesus. I’m scared, just like you are, but we can’t let our fears rule us! I love you, Jesus. Do you love me?’ Hitler’s eyes had tears in them. Jesus smiles. ‘Yes, Hitler. I love you.’ They embraced. Again, they kissed passionately” (Angkras, 2010). Beyond the offense given to religious communities in this story, other real-person fanfiction narratives range from wholesome but mundane stories to hardcore explicit erotica. There are also hundreds of thousands of fanfictions tagged as “incest,” “rape/non-con[sensual],” ”domestic violence,” and ”underage sex,” a range of often-forbidden topics enabled by the freedom of expression and creativity afforded in the often-anonymous world of fanfiction writing.

Controversy over the ethics of fanfiction gets even more intense when its subjects are contemporary real individuals such as celebrities. Fans have used the abilities to create and quickly share content in digital form to write their favorite public figures into scenarios the fan may have fantasized about, but which may be taboo in real life and shocking to the actor or celebrity depicted. In most communities, sexual relationships between siblings is generally stigmatized; in the digital arena of fanfiction, amateur authors can safely “publish” narratives such as “Taken,” written by “Missbeizy,” which depicts a fictional sexual relationship between the actor Elijah Wood and his sister in its made-up story line. Siblings such as James and Oliver Phelps, the actors who played the Weasley twins in the Harry Potter series, as well as the actors Liam and Chris Hemsworth, have also been the protagonists in such lurid fan-written creations. While many RPF creations function as satire or as simply bad story-telling, other fan creations feature well-known actors or celebrities being brutally raped or in scenarios involving underage sexual encounters. All of these raise the question of how much control a real but public person has over his or her image in fictional creations.

Fans of fanfiction have debated such controversial extremes. Celebrities have taken to social media to air their personal opinions about fanfictions and real-person fanfiction narratives. For instance, Lynn Flewelling, author of The Nightrunner Series, has not been shy about her feelings: “That being said, here’s my opinion on people writing sexually oriented fanfiction about real people. It’s WRONG, CREEPY, VERY EXTREMELY ICKY, and should be ILLEGAL. Anyone still unclear on my feelings should read the previous sentence again.” Celebrities such as Daniel Radcliffe, James McAvoy, and Michael Fassbender have encountered their own fanfiction echoes and seem to be amused by them. On The Graham Norton Show, Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, and Michael Fassbender were read the synopses of multiple fanfictions about themselves; Fassbender called them “amazing” and McAvoy joked after reading one about him having Fassbender’s baby, “IVF can do incredible things these days” (BBC, 2014).

Fans also have been divided in their opinions of real-person fanfiction. Some argue that it is their right to creative expression and that this a way for them to put their admiration and love for these celebrities into words. They claim that it does no harm as long as it is respectful, described appropriately as “fiction,” and published on the right websites. A now-defunct Reddit user defended real-person fanfiction by stating that “celebrities do have a right to privacy, but most RPF writers aren’t engaging in behavior that the celebrity should find troubling. We don’t stalk them, we don’t approach them in real life and we don’t actually believe that our made-up stories are real” ([deleted], 2018). Other fans who oppose these creations also publicly worry about the potential harms that such stories might spawn: “I’m sure there are quality stories out there, but I think the fact fanfiction deals with real people and, from what I’ve seen around, can also feed delusions about these real people which creeps me out to some extent” (Andy, 2015).

Given that “real” art is often transgressive and offensive, and that it often uses or targets real people, the question becomes: How should we think about the ethics of fan-created expressive works that center on and feature real people who may not agree with such a usage? What are the limits to our thoughts and expressions involving celebrities and public figures? When does fan fiction become a real ethical problem?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are the ethical concerns and problems with real-person fanfiction (RPF)?
  2. What ethical values are in conflict when fans create RPF works and celebrities attempt to control their public image?
  3. What are the ethical lines that RPF should not cross? Would these limits apply to professional artists who often base fictional stories on real-life events and figures?
  4. Some art is specifically designed to lampoon, criticize, or embarrass its real-life subjects. Might RPF serve this critical function? If so, how does this impact your judgments of the ethics of RPF works?

Further Information:

Andy. “Roundtable: Let’s Talk About Fanfiction” Seoulbeats, August 14, 2015,

Angkras. “Jesus and Hitler: A Romance.”, July 10, 2010,

Anonymous. “Ms. Brie.” Archive of Our Own, August 19, 2016,

BBC. “Michael Fassbender & James McAvoy’s fan art romance – The Graham Norton Show – BBC”. YouTube, May 2, 2014,

[deleted]. “RE: Is writing RPF fanfiction really a bad thing?”August 2018,

Flewelling, Lynn. “Lynn Speaks Re: Fanfiction.” December 11, 2004,

Missbeizy. “Taken.” Archive of Our Own, December 12, 2014,

SapphicAndSarcastic. “The Rape of Jensen.” Archive of Our Own, March 6, 2017,


Oluwasemilore Adeoluwa & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
November 26, 2018

Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational use. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful. For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

Filtering Out Cyberbullying

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Instagram’s Anti-Bullying Filters

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Of the many new ethical challenges raised by social media, one of the more worrisome is cyberbullying. A recent Pew survey found that 59% of American teens say they have experienced some type of cyberbullying online or on their cell phone. Bullying has been especially prominent on one of the most popular social media platforms, the image-intensive site Instagram. On October 9, 2018, Instagram announced that they would introduce a feature that utilizes machine learning techniques to detect bullying in images and captions posted on the platform. When detected, the images are reviewed by an Instagram employee to determine if they should be deleted. This new feature builds off a tool implemented last year that detects hurtful or offensive comments.

Instagram’s new tools are intended to prevent bullying among users of its platform, a response to criticisms that it has failed to prevent bullying—in a recent study, for instance, “Instagram was highlighted as having become the vehicle most used for mean comments” (The Annual Bullying Survey 2017). Taylor Lorenz claims that “Teenagers have always been cruel to one another. But Instagram provides a uniquely powerful set of tools to do so” (2018). The head of Instagram, Adam Mosseri, hopes to limit the ability for users to utilize this “powerful set of tools” in a negative manner. In a blog post announcing the release of the new anti-bullying measures, he commented that they will “help us protect our youngest community members since teens experience higher rates of bullying online than others” (Mosseri, 2018). Many observers are hopeful that features like these will reduce the amount of negative posts and comments and help the many young Instagram users that struggle with bullying on the Internet.

As laudable as these goals are, the introduction of Instagram’s anti-bullying measures has been meet with concern from many of its users. Some critics believe that these features are another instance of social networks limiting free speech on their sites for the purpose of making their platforms more desirable, thereby increasing the number of users and the site’s profit (Blakely & Balaish, 2017). Many believe that companies like Facebook, who owns Instagram, have too much power when it comes to deciding who gets to say what on social media. In discussing the new anti-bullying filters, Kalev Leetaru argues that Silicon Valley is transitioning from the “early days of embracing freedom of speech at all costs” to becoming “the party of moderation and mindful censorship” (2018).

Critics of Instagram’s latest moves are also concerned about the way these changes were planned and implemented. Instagram has not been fully transparent in revealing the techniques used to filter out negative images and comments:  “no detail is given beyond that ‘machine learning’ is being used, no reassuring statistics on how much training data was used or the algorithm’s accuracy rate when it entered service. Subsequent public statements are typically vague, claiming ‘successes’ or misleadingly worded statements that are not corrected when the media reports them wrong and rarely include any kind of accuracy statistics” (Leetaru, 2018). The lack of transparency, explicit standards, and accuracy data are a cause for concern. Due to this lack of transparency, many worry about implicit bias in the anti-bullying filters—or human moderators—that could eliminate posts which are not truly bullying in nature. However, Instagram argues that allowing external oversight into their filters and providing information on how they exactly work would allow for malicious users to “game” the system and avoid the anti-bullying controls.

Another worry centers on the issue of whether image content can be reliably identified as “bullying” in nature. For instance, some “split-screen” images compare a picture of a user to another photo in a negative fashion, but this isn’t always the function of comparative collages. What makes an image—whether individually or as part of a collage—an essential part of an act of cyberbullying? Would posting or tagging an unflattering picture or undesirable image constitute bullying behavior? What about a user who posts an image mocking a public figure, politician, or famous celebrity? In more general terms, what differentiates a course of bullying from harsh criticism?

Instagram’s new bullying filters could help to protect younger users from harmful attacks and hateful comments. However, these preventative measures come at a cost to the freedom of speech on the Internet and give more power and control of online content to large social media companies like Facebook. How much filtering do we need to purify our online ecosystems of cyberbullying?

Discussion Questions:

  1. Should social media websites be held responsible for the content that is posted on their platforms by individual users?
  2. How would you define cyberbullying? What features must a post have to count as cyberbullying? Can you think of another sort of non-bullying post that might have some or all of these features?
  3. What ethical values are in conflict in Instagram’s attempt to fight cyberbullying? How might you balance these values in dealing with cyberbullying?
  4. What are the drawbacks to having human moderators determine which comments and posts are harmful and which should be allowed to remain? What are the drawbacks to machines or programs doing most of this work?

Further Information:

“The Annual Bullying Survey 2017: What 10,000 People Told Us About Bullying.” Ditch the Label, July 2017. Available at:

Blakely, Jonathan, and Timor Balaish. “Is Instagram going too far to protect our feelings?” CBS News, August 14, 2017. Available at:

Leetaru, Kalev. “Why Instagram’s New Anti-Bullying Filter Is So Dangerous” CNN Business, October 11, 2018. Available at:

Lorenz, Taylor. “Teens Are Being Bullied ‘Constantly’ on Instagram” The Atlantic, October 10, 2018. Available at:

“A Majority of Teens Have Experienced Some Form of Cyberbullying.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (September 17, 2018). Available at:

Mosseri, Adam. “New Tools to Limit Bullying and Spread Kindness on Instagram.” October 9, 2018. Available at:

Wakefield, Jane. “Instagram tops cyber-bullying study” BBC News, July 19, 2017. Available at:

Yurieff, Kaya. “Instagram says it will now detect bullying in photos.” Forbes, October 9, 2018. Available at:


Colin Frick & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
November 20, 2018

Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They are produced for educational use only. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational uses. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

Boldly Going Where Studios Have Gone Before

CASE STUDY: Fan Fiction and the Ethics of Imitation

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Axanar Productions / Screencapture from Kickstarter / Modified

Oscar Wilde’s famous saying “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” is often invoked as a way to skitter away from accusations of plagiarism or copyright infringement. But when does imitation cease to be a mere compliment, and something that crosses an ethical line? This question arises in the case of Axanar, a fan-made short film inspired by the revered Star Trek franchise. Written by Alec Peters, Axanar was at the center of one of the most highly-debated court cases surrounding the ethical issues created when copyright protections clash with the freedom of speech and expression by fans.

This particular case began with the creation of Prelude to Axanar, a 21-minute long documentary-styled film. It is set in the Star Trek universe and recounts a clash, popularly known as the Battle of Axanar, between the Federation and the aggressive Klingons. Although it only began with a funding goal of $10,000 through Kickstarter, as a result of fans’ anticipation and interest, Axanar Productions was able to raise $101,000 for the film’s production ensuring a high-profile release at the San Diego Comic-Con in July 2014. Axanar Productions had to utilize Kickstarter donations because of the strict guidelines given by Paramount Studios prohibiting sales of tickets and merchandise in support of a completed fanworks. The Prelude to Axanar fan film was a success, generating over 3.4 million views on YouTube. This clearly showed fan interest in the production of the planned—but still unfilmed—fan-produced longer feature film, Axanar.

The popularity of Prelude to Axanar caught the attention of the executives of CBS Studios and Paramount Pictures. They filed a lawsuit in 2015 alleging copyright infringement in a federal court in California. Included in their list of infringed elements were characters such as “Garth of Izar,” “Richard Robau,” and “Soval.” Also named were races and species such as “Klingons” and “Vulcans.” Distinctive costumes were also claimed as protected. This came as a shock to Axanar Productions, as there had been previous fanworks inspired by Star Trek that did not attract copyright lawsuits. Peters, the head of Axanar Productions, claimed that “We violate CBS copyright less than any other fan film” (United States District Court, 2016). Axanar Productions further defended their use of Star Trek elements by stating on their website that “Axanar is an independent project that uses the intellectual property of CBS under the provision that Axanar is totally non-commercial. That means we can never charge for anything featuring their marks or intellectual property and we will never sell the movie, DVD/Blu-ray copies, T-shirts, or anything which uses CBS owned marks or intellectual property” (Geuss, March 15, 2016). In other words, Axanar was claiming that it did nothing to take anything of value from the owners of the copyrighted story and characters.

Fans of the original Star Trek franchise and of the fan film flooded the internet with their protest against the legal actions taken by Paramount studios and CBS. Those who support the prequel argued that some of the most popular movies and books of today can be began as fan productions. The successful and highly-commercialized film Fifty Shades of Grey began as a fanfiction inspired by Twilight, and the acclaimed musical Wicked can technically be called a fanmusical based upon The Wizard of Oz. Others argued that studios are using this case as a way to dissuade others from producing professional-quality fanworks. The lawsuit eventually ended with a settlement in 2017 allowing Axanar productions to film but under even stricter guidelines. The rules that Axanar and all future creators of Star Trek inspired fan productions must adhere to include the following strictures:

  1. Any fan film has to be 15 minutes or less for a standalone film or up to two episodes or parts not exceeding a total of thirty minutes.
  2. Star Trek cannot be part of the film title but “A STAR TREK FAN PRODUCTION” must be included in a plain typeface as a subtitle.
  3. No imitations or bootleg version of merchandise can be used. They must be officially merchandise that are commercially available.
  4. The cast cannot be professional actors or have been affiliated with the original Star Trek universe in any way. Neither can they be compensated for their work.
  5. A maximum of $50,000 can be raised through fundraising and the production must be non-commercial. The fan production must not generate revenue in any way. (CBS Entertainment, “Fan Films”)

These guidelines are just some of the new rules in place regulating fan productions. Those on both sides feel unsatisfied as they claim that the settlement does nothing to settle the ethical debate of what counts as imitation or plagiarism, and what counts as inspiration. Do these new guidelines uphold the values of freedom of expression and creativity or do they unduly stifle the imaginations of fans who just want to play a part in furthering their favorite works?

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why is it ethically good that original creative works are protected by measures such as copyright?
  2. What are the ethical values in conflict in cases of fan fiction based upon copyrighted works?
  3. Do you believe that Prelude to Axanar crossed any ethical lines in how it used Star Trek elements? Why or why not?
  4. What do you think about the rules enunciated for fan fiction? Are these unjustifiably containing of fan creativity?
  5. What would be the best way to protect companies’ and artists’ interests in original works and allow for related fan-created works?

Further Information:

CBS Entertainment. “Fan Films.” Star Trek, CBS Studios Inc., Available at:

Devenish, Alan. “The Quest to Make a Studio-Quality Star Trek Movie on a Kickstarter Budget.” Wired, June 3, 2017. Available at:

Geuss, Megan. “Judge: Star Trek Fanfic Creators Must Face CBS, Paramount Copyright Lawsuit.” Ars Technica, May 10, 2016, Available at:

Geuss, Megan. “Paramount, CBS List the Ways Star Trek Fanfic Axanar Infringes Copyright.” Ars Technica, March 15, 2016,

Mele, Christopher. “‘Star Trek’ Copyright Settlement Allows Fan Film to Proceed.” The New York Times, New York Times, January, 21, 2017. Available at:

United States District Court: Central District of California. Paramount Pictures Corporation and CBS Studios Inc. March 11, 2016. Available at:


Oluwasemilore Adeoluwa & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
October 31, 2018

Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational use. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

Is Incivility Ever Ethical?

The Center for Media Engagement and Media Ethics Initiative Present:

Is Incivility Ever Ethical?

Dr. Gina Masullo Chen

Assistant Professor of Journalism
University of Texas at Austin

October 16, 2018


Dr. Gina Masullo Chen is an Assistant Professor in the School of Journalism and the Assistant Director of the Center for Media Engagement, both at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research focuses on the online conversation around the news and how it influences social, civic, and political engagement. She is the author of Online Incivility and Public Debate: Nasty Talk and co-editor of Scandal in a Digital Age. She is currently writing her third book, The New Town Hall: Why We Engage Personally with Politicians. She spent 20 years as a newspaper journalist before becoming a professor.

The Media Ethics Initiative is part of the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. Follow MEI and CME on Facebook for more information. Media Ethics Initiative events are open and free to the public.



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