Of Copyrights and Tardigrades: How Toxic Fandom is Driving Plagiarism Allegations Against ‘Star Trek: Discovery’—WATCH

So this was a video that I thought about making a few weeks ago, heck, even a year ago, but decided against it because I thought that it was done and over with, and that this specific court case had already been talked to death by so many within the Star Trek fandom here on YouTube and elsewhere. But recently, there has been some new developments in the discussion around, as many of you may already know, a lawsuit against CBS and Star Trek: Discovery filed by Egyptian video game developer Anas Abdin, who alleges that Star Trek: Discovery violated his copyright and stole ideas from his game Tardigrades. Some of the developments around this lawsuit honestly disturb me, as someone who cares deeply about Star Trek but, more importantly, someone who cares a lot about the community of Trekkies and Star Trek fans.

Why you may ask? Well, I’ll get to it, but first I think I should give some background on Abdin’s case, because I it’s an interesting one, and provides a fun opportunity to learn more about copyrights and copyright law.

ANAS ABDIN’S LAWSUIT

Alright, so first things first, I’m basing a lot of this information off of research already done by two wonderful individuals. The first is Star Trek YouTube vlogger Ketwolski, who recently did a comprehensive take and the main one I will be drawing from is linked up above and in the description below. The second was a wonderful Star Trek fan called Captain Pike-a-Chu on Twitter, which is an adorable name, who did a lot of research on this case for a legal assignment that they were doing, though to be clear they have no connection to this case outside of being a Star Trek fan. So thank you to both of them, and please be sure to follow both of them, their information is below. 

In 2014, Anas Abdin, released a Steam Greenlight project called Epoch, a point and click adventure game that was meant to be an send up of previous video games. Steam Greenlight, for those of you who don’t know, was a place on the online video game retail store steam where developers could put their game concepts up and the community could vote on the title until it became “greenlit.”

When Epcoh was greenlit, Abdin uploaded a trailer for the game on his YouTube channel on May 8th, 2014. Then on February 22nd, 2015, Anas changed the name of the game to Tardigrades, saying at the time “After a lot of thinking and a massive amount of advice, research and opinions, there is no escape from going through one of the hardest steps for me, a name change for my little baby. I shall call him Tardigrades. Tardigrades, waterbears, moss piglets, call them whatever you like. For me, they are the indestructible… they can survive temperatures from just above absolute zero up to above the boiling point of water. They can also survive extreme conditions of radiation and the vacuum of space. They can go without food or water for more than 10 years. Who else can travel space like Tardigrades?”

On July 12, 2017, the first video of Abdin’s game that shows a tardigrade at all was uploaded to YouTube. This video also shows the tardigrade being used for space travel. Ok, now that is cute. Giving a big ‘ol scifi bear hug. I don’t care what you think about this lawsuit, I think we can all agree, tardigrades are cute. 

On July 22, 2017, CBS uploaded the first full trailer for Star Trek: Discovery, the first trailer of show actual footage of the show. Now, as Ketwolski points out, the trailer doesn’t explicitly show the tardigrade character Ripper that would eventually appear on Discovery, but it does show the tardigrades cage, so we can presume that the creature was already in the story at this point, or at least a creature. Two months later, on October 1, 2017, the first episode of Star Trek: Discovery that featured a tardigrade aired on CBS All Access. The tardigrade was revealed to be able to travel through space about two episodes later, airing on October 15th. 

Abdin sees this tardigrade on Star Trek: Discovery, along with what he sees as several other similarities between Discovery and his game, the specifics of which I’ll get into in a minute. Abdin then asks himself, “WAIT DID LORCA PUNCH HARVEY MUDD IN THE FACE? WHY IS A STARFLEET CAPTAIN DOING THAT?” Presumably. That’s what I was asking after that episode. But Abdin does believe that there are too many substantial similarities between his game and Discovery, and decides to file a lawsuit against CBS.

Now, after a bunch of back and forth for a couple years, a New York State judge finally ruled in favor of CBS’s request to dismiss the ruling, just a few weeks ago in late September 2019. Abdin himself stated that he would “respect the judges ruling.”

Now, what happened after this point is the crux of what I want to talk about, but I think we need to pause here to go into some of the specifics of Abdin’s case, as well as learn a little about copyright law. I know, learning in a Jessie Gender video? Who would have thought?

GOT SOMETHING TO PROVE 

So to win a copyright lawsuit, there are three things Abdin has to prove. 

The first is: establish you own a copyright.

That’s actually pretty simple in Abdin’s case.  In the United States, as soon as you put an expression of your idea into a tangible form that is semi permanent or permanent, like a video game concept, a script, a song, then you can copyright it. As I outlined above, there are clear times where Abdin published content about his video game online, and it was clear that he was the one to come up with the game idea.

However, establishing you own a copyright can actually become a hell of a lot trickier though. One notable case was between Bill Finger and Bob Kane. Bill Finger and Bob Kane both came up with the idea for Batman together, but Bob Kane, being the shrewder businessman in comparison to Finger’s more creative sensibilities, was the only one credited with creating Batman for years. It wasn’t until years and years later, and a hell of a lot of legal work by an investigator and Bill Finger’s relatives, that they were finally able to get him credit for creating Batman. His first official credit on Batman was in the movie Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. It’s a fascinating tale, and there’s a wonderful documentary called Batman & Bill on Hulu that I highly recommend you watch. 

And this aspect of the law actually does get tricky for Abdin. Under the aforementioned U.S. law, called the Visual Artist’s Law, the legal definition of what gets protection is “works of visual art- a narrow class of art defined to include paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures, or photographs produced for exhibition purposes, existing in a single copy or limited edition of 200 copies or fewer.” The fact that Abdin only published elements of the game on websites and blogs means that his claim of copyright, having created something permanent, is problematic. Abdin tried to copyright his game in 2018, but that was well after Discovery had premiered. But again, to be fair, this is all legal technicalities. It’s clear Abdin created an idea for a game, and put parts of it out there in the world for others to see. So legally, it muddy. But I’d venture to say that pretty much all of us can agree that Anas did come up with concept, and it was POSSIBLE for someone to read it and take from it. 

Next, he needs to establish that someone else, in this case the team of Star Trek: Discovery, copied from him.

Now this is typically much harder to do, especially in Abdin’s’ case. You’d first need to establish that someone saw your work, and then copied parts of it. This is really hard to show in Anas’ case because, well, the first time he referenced tardigrades in relation to his game was in February 2015, shortly before Star Trek: Discovery was announced in November 2015, though Discovery would have been in the works for a while before then. Even more, his video of a tardigrade traveling in space wasn’t posted until a few days after Discovery’s trailer where we know the tardigrade was already involved in the story. But, it’s possible that Discovery writers could have read about Abdin’s game in 2015, and added the tardigrade to their story, wholesale lifting from Abdin’s ideas. Abdin even cites an executive producer on Discovery who takes part in the Steam greenlit program, though he never had any direct connection to Abdin’s game that we are aware of. 

So, there’s no real evidence to prove that Discovery stole Abdin’s ideas. The only way to prove it would be to show that Discovery’s usage of similar elements bear substantial similarities to Abdin’s work. Which brings us to the final thing Abdin has to prove. 

Finally, he’s saddled with the burden of proof, i.e. that what they copied amounts to copyright infringement. 

Now that last one, may seem confusing. I mean if someone copied, how is that not copyright infringement right there? Well, not really. 

As copyright law states, “Copyright does not protect an idea, only the expression of an idea” – Williams v. Crichton. 

What does that mean?

All art influences each other. Art rarely comes out of nowhere.  Writers and creators are always inspired by what came before them, and are often writing in conversation with other works of art.  Some conversations can be obvious, like for example, if a big budget series happened to be an almost perfect homage to a certain science fiction series, right down to the look of the show, the themes explored, the world it portrays, and the episodic structure of the series. Which would be crazy. Ok, let’s not pick on the Orville, I like the Orville, let’s do something else… Galaxy Quest… oh god I like that one too, let’s move on. 

Writers can draw on themes or ideas of other works more subtly. It can be subtle, like how the reimagined Battlestar Galactica series can be seen as a refutation of Star Trek: Voyager. Ronald D. Moore thought that Star Trek: Voyager didn’t deal with the consequences of being lost and alone with few supplies enough, so he created the new Battlestar Galactica as a way to discuss those themes. As many know, “good artists borrow, great artists steal.”

That line isn’t about literal stealing, but basically means that are art, even the best art, in fact, especially the best art, are directly influenced by others. Art needs to be able to react to other art in order you know, occur. So things like Galaxy Quest, The Orville, and even Battlestar Galactica are natural evolutions of art.

But how? Even putting aside Abdin, how is something like The Orville, which is clearly jumping off of Star Trek: The Next Generation, not copyright infringement. Well, it goes back to this idea of copyright does not protect an idea, only the expression of an idea. 

The Orville’s setting of a spaceship that can travel faster than light with bright colored uniforms are using what is known as Scenes a faire, or “Elements of a work that are indispensable, or at least standard, in the treatment of a given topic – like cowboys, bank robbers, and shootouts in stories of the American west – that get no protections.” So faster than light space ships, bright colored uniforms, even stuff like a galactic coalition of planets working together for the harmony of society are all standard elements of science fiction today, even if Star Trek and TNG were great parts in helping create those genre conventions.

Even things like what are known legally as “Stock characters,” such as the captain or the science officer or an emotionless alien or a warrior alien race all genre conventions, and thus not protected under copyright. 

However, specifics expressions of those ideas are. That means actually specifics of a story that will make your story… well yours. If The Orville took place on the Enterprise, or had a Captain named Kirk, then it would be a copyright infringement. 

Let’s go beyond Star Trek. Look at Brightburn, which is clearly riffing off the Superman mythos. Yet, you can’t copyright the alien comes to earth raised by a mother and father story and becomes a superhero, as that’s become a superhero genre convention at this point. But if the story featured a guy who grew up to be Superishman named Clark Bent who lived in Metropoliania, there might be a case there. 

An even better example is back before Disney had the right to the X-Men, they tried to introduce the Inhumans as superpowered, everyday humans, similar to the X-men’s mutants. Fox, which had the rights to the idea of mutants, couldn’t stop them from doing this because superpowered humans wasn’t protected by copyright, only the name mutants in conjunction with the X-Men, as well as the specific X-men characters like Wolverine. But to be fair, the Inhumans blew up in Marvel’s face and I bet Fox was laughing, until Disney bought everything from them. Including their ability to laugh… ok not that. But soon, I’m sure Disney will have rights to our ability to express emotions too. 

SPECIFICS

Ok, so now that we know more about copyright law, let’s take a look at Abdin’s specific claims. While the tardigrade was the biggest issue, as it does seem the most specific, Abdin did have other concepts he claimed were stolen.

The first was a gay relationship between two homosexual main characters in his game. Firstly, having gay characters in science fiction isn’t new, despite what many may think. It’s not even new in Star Trek, such as with Sulu being made gay in 2016’s Star Trek: Beyond. Check out my video on star Trek’s queer history for more on that though. What’s more, Discovery features Hugh Culber, a man of Puerto Rican descent, as part of the homosexual relationship. Abdin’s game features a man of Middle-Eastern descent. A character of Middle Eastern decent on Discovery, Ash Tyler, isn’t gay on the show, so the two aren’t exactly similar. And as we said before, you can’t copyright gay characters in a thing, or someone’s hertiage, as that fits into stock characters. You can’t claim a monopoly on interracial homosexual realtionships in a story. 

Abdin also claims his uniforms are similar to Discovery’s, and he claims that because Discovery’s uniforms are so different from Star Trek’s previous incarnations, that it might have been copied from his game. Yet, if you do a search, you see both Discovery and Abdin’s’ uniforms look like NASA uniforms. In fact, they also both look like Star Trek: Enterprise’s uniforms. It’s more likely both Discovery and Abdin were influenced by NASA. Or Star Trek Enterprise. I mean, Scott Bakula certainly influenced me. 

Abdin also claims that several characters are similar. A blonde space botanist. A female African American woman. A white female with orange curly hair. But again, these are all stock characters. And again, Star Trek did it before Abdin. A female African American woman, sounds a lot like Uhura. In fact, Abdin’s African American woman character is a communications officer, MUCH LIKE UHURA, moreso than Burnham on Discovery. Not to mention the tons of other African American women on Star Trek and other sci fi stories. Having burnham on the show is much more an extension of Star Trek’s 50 year legacy then an unpublished video games’. Space botanists have existed for a long long time, see Sunshine. 

Abdin also claims that Discovery stole his Egyptian cultural  themes, with Discovery’s use of a Klingon sarcophagus in its pilot. Yet, Egyptian themes in sc- fi isn’t knew. I watched enough Stargate SG-1 to know that. He also alleges that traveling an astro-plain with characters having trails of themselves behind them, was stolen from him. Yet that’s not new. Again, even Star Trek has done this before. 

And finally, this brings us to the tardigrade of it all.

This does seem to be the most specific element taken. Yet, as the dismissal of Abdin’s case states, “the bar for substantial similarity in a character is set quite high, and the similarity between the two tardigrades falls short of this standard.” They both have different colors, Abdin’s blue, Discovery’s brownish green. The idea of tardigrades being used to travel in space in a scifi story also isn’t new. A book called The Search for WondLa had it. A 2015 YouTube video called Captain Tardigrade features that. Heck, there’s even an article published in 2013 in Scientific American called how Tardigrades Saved The Enterprise, showing that even the Discovery’s writers weren’t the first to think of Tardigrades in Star Trek being a good idea. The two tardigrades even have different personalities. Abdin’s tardigrade is venerated in the game, associated with immortality, transformation and protection. The legal dismissal document, and I kid you not, says Discovery’s tardigrade is “a beloved, but poorly behaved, pet dog.”

That’s some dog.

But the legal argument stands. 

The point I’m trying to make with all of this isn’t that Discovery didn’t steal from Abdin. As I said before, that’s honestly incredibly difficult to prove either way. Maybe the writers did see his game and thought some ideas were cool, or maybe they had no idea who he was until the lawsuit. But what they ended up putting in the show, in my opinion, doesn’t constitute copyright infringement because, well, the elements that both share are also shared with so many other stories and elements of science fiction. 

DISCLAIMER

Now I want to be clear here. In my personal opinion, and apparently in the opinion of a New York state judge who knows a hell of a lot more about this sort of thing then I do, I don’t think there’s a way for Anas to win this case. Hell, it’s clear in some cases that both Abdin and Star Trek: Discovery are both drawing from the same creative influence… The Original Star Trek series. Abdin himself potentially lifted stuff from other sources for his game. The opening to Dune is remarkably similar to Tardigrade‘s opening segment. And I’ll credit Ketwolski for pointing that out, and he mentions many more similarities between Abdin’s game and other games and movies, some of which are pretty cut and dry stolen, and quite possibly would not hold up in a copyright case against Abdin, if that were to happen. But I don’t want that to happen to Abdin, and honestly, like I said, art influences art. I think there are arguments to be made that Anas is being hypocritical, but I’m not going to go down that road. If you want to know more, check out Ketwolski’s video or his twitter account, as he’s unearthed a couple more issues since his video. For the purposes of this video, at least, I’ll give Abdin the benefit of the doubt, the benefits that it seems he doesn’t extend to the Star Trek: Discovery creative team.

 

There are  certainly  parallels, at least on the surface, between Abdin’s game and Star Trek: Discovery. And if anyone on Star Trek: Discovery read Abdin’s work and decided to plagiarize his game instead of just being inspired by it, that is wrong, and should be called out. I personally don’t believe that that happened, or even if it did, that it’s legally provable, but I by no means am going to be the one to die on the hill of defending a giant megacorporation. My Millennial Marxist heart may actually go into cardiac arrest. I just don’t think that Abdin can prove that in court, nor prove that what they stole was copyright protected anyways. 

If Abdin, in good faith, truly believes that his work was stolen, then by all meanshe has the right to pursue that. And I have no doubt that is what he did when he first filed his initial copyright suit. 

But the key words are: “in good faith.” Because, you see, all of that stuff that I’ve spent this whole video talking about… honestly, none of it really is the biggest issue here, at least in my opinion. I explained it all because I want my videos to be educational for one, but also so that you watching have the fullest understanding of what’s going on. 

The biggest issue here is how this lawsuit, and Abdin himself, are being used to, in my personal belief, in bad faith to fuel an agenda and narrative, as well as a desire for attention and publicity, that frankly I find to be gross. 

FINALLY THE POINT

Alright, so here’s the part of the video that I know is going to get me into trouble, but I think this needs to be said and needs to be said clearly. So, earlier this week, Abdin decided to file an appeal to the judges dismissal of his case, despite earlier saying he would respect the judges initial ruling. This new appeal was done after Abdin set up a GoFundme at the behest of several prominent YouTubers in the Trek community, namely, Star Trek YouTubers who have actively attacked and spread negativity about Star Trek: Discovery and CBS’s handling of Star Trek for the past several years. Not to mention the negativity they spread about others shows. 

Abdin has stated the his goal was and still is “That I keep my rights to my own original ideas just like everyone else does,” as well as “I will be as transparent as clean glass regarding the how the money gets spent. Every single dollar is going to be spent on the lawsuit.” And at this point, there is no reason to doubt him. But… there is a but here. 

There are some YouTubers in the Trek community, specifically Nerdrotic and Overlord DVD, otherwise known as Doomcock, whose particular brand of negativity towards Star Trek and other fandoms I find to be incredibly gross, inappropriate, and flat out offensive. There are other YouTubers as well that I personally take issue with, but these two specifically are the biggest as well as the ones most involved in promoting Abdin’s lawsuit.  In brief, they often use hyperbole, extreme gatekeeping, insults towards those who like something they hate, as well as implications towards sexism, racism, and homophobia without outright saying those things and other tactics in order to build their audience and popularity. Because sadly, the YouTube algorithm rewards negativity, and let’s be honest, negativity is always popular, regardless of how good or bad something is. And I find it to be repugnant. 

 

It was the rhetoric and chatter of the more toxic segment of YouTubers that helped push Abdin to continue his lawsuit because, it’s a narrative that dovetails with their conspiracies, and that get their audience all enraged and energized, and helps them justify and continue their disgusting behavior within the Trek fandom. The longer Abdin’s lawsuit continues, even if it has no chance of winning, the more they can make videos about it which will in turn get more views because it’s popular content that again, justifies their hatred and disgust. So these creators get rewarded with popularity and monetarily. Hell, they’re even selling TV shirts for this lawsuit. And Abdin also profits as well, most likely making more money than he would have made without filing the lawsuit. And the more these creators can justify telling other Trek fans that’t they not TRUE Trek fans if they like Discovery, or say that having queer people in stories is an agenda when it’s simply just allowing queer people to exist in stories finally after years of being left out, etc.

In fact, it probably suits them that Abdin loses his lawsuit, because then they can say well it’s just the big evil corporation who hates “real” fans that’s destroying this poor little guy Abdin, ignoring the fact that he sadly doesn’t have a strong case. This lawsuit, however innocent and well-meaning it was from the start, has now been warped into something gross and sinister, perpetuating a toxicity inside Trek fandom. 

While I will always support the little guy standing up for his rights, especially in the face of a large corporation, I’m just disgusted that my precious corner of the wonderful world of geekier, the Star Trek community that means so much to me, has also twisted a real life issue and Anas Abdin’s fight  into a perverse smear campaign that is meant to justify their own continued horrific behavior that is rewarded by a YouTube algorithm. I had hoped we would be better than that. And I ask all of you out there watching this… don’t support those YouTube channels. If you want to support Abdin, that’s a choice you have to make. But I implore you, do not support any YouTuber , even if they agree with you on a singular issues such as something like ‘Star Trek Discovery is total and complete trash’, that spreads hatefulness into a community built on loving something .

Abdin himself, put it perfectly in an interview he recently did when discussing his decision to appeal.

“I still respect the ruling. Appealing to a ruling doesn’t mean disrespect. We can disagree on many points and still carry a great amount of respect towards each other” 

Thanks in advance for watching the video below. Like I said, please check out Ketwolski’s video on the lawsuit, as well as follow him and the wonderful Captain Pike-a-chu whose research made this video possible. And if you liked this video, and want more videos discussing Star Trek topic, typically with a much more uplifting and positive tone then this, as well as other discussions of political and social issues through geekdoms, give my channel a subscribe. And if you want to help make these videos even better, please give to my Patreon page! It honestly means the world to me when you give like these amazing folks did, and helps me stay motivated. And until next time… live long, and prosper.

 

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