Paramount Aims Phasers At Trekker Prosecutor

By day, Sam Ramer prosecutes homicides as an assistant district attorney in the Bronx. At night, he has another life, this one involving galaxies and characters far, far away. His extracurricular pursuit of all things Star Trek has fulfilled his fantasy life, but it’s also put him on another side of the law–away from the streets and into the thick of the high-rise intellectual property wars.

Mr. Ramer is the novice author of The Joy of Trek: How to Enhance Your Relationship With a Star Trek Fan , a canny, self-mocking guide to the science fiction franchise that has fed thousands of nerds’ future fetishes. Mr. Ramer intended his book to help non-Trekkers catch up with all the arcana and gadget-mania that makes viewing the show so off-putting.

Mr. Ramer wrote the 217-page guide, published in 1997 by Carol Publishing Group Inc., without permission of Paramount Pictures Corporation, a fact he points out in a cover disclaimer: “This book has not been authorized by any entity involved with the creation or production of Star Trek .” Paramount soon sued, asking for $23 million in damages, $100,000 for each of 230 episode citations. In June 1998, Star Trek ‘s copyright holders convinced a Federal judge in Manhattan that Mr. Ramer had lovingly included too many details from the franchise’s television episodes, movies and spinoff books in chapters like “How Did Scotty Get So Old and Fat?” The judge ordered the book’s distribution stopped. As they say in Klingon, net’oy !–that hurts! Mr. Ramer and his publisher appealed.

The appellate argument, scheduled for April, will focus on how much “fair use” a fan can make of his favorite show when writing about it for money. Beyond that, in an age of multilayered media empires, the case could fire up a feud between the executives at the top of synergy and the writers down below. “It cuts both ways,” said Steven Schragis, the lawyer-owner of Carol. “The concept of what is and isn’t fair use, in a world where there’s so much branding and so much controlled by media outlets, would be welcome.”

In the case of Mr. Ramer’s book, most of the legal argument will focus on the middle chapters. Judge Samuel Conti of Federal District Court in Manhattan and the litigants agree that the author’s first 48 pages and his last 27 pages of conclusion, in which he reviews the allure and annoyances of Trek culture, qualify as legitimate original commentary. But, the judge ruled, the 158 pages in between are too heavy on plot, character and trivia synopses of Star Trek ‘s 530 episodes and eight feature films and too light on analysis. “These chapters do not add anything substantial that is new to the Star Trek story,” wrote Judge Conti.

One legal scholar who read the decision thought the appeal would go Paramount’s way. “If you have 158 pages of summary, it’s going to be hard to win,” said Hugh Hansen, a law professor at Fordham University and the author of Intellectual Property Law and Policy . He said that Carol’s protestations about the book’s intellectual value was unlikely to distract the appellate judges from the book’s target: its buyers. “They’re not buying this book for critical analysis or insights, they’re buying this to get in on the game, so to speak,” Mr. Hansen added. The book’s cover indeed describes it as “everything a Star Trek novice needs to know.”

Judge Conti provided Mr. Ramer’s lawyer, Leon Friedman, with fuel for the appeal with one finding. “Mr. Ramer was motivated, to a large extent, by a genuine desire to help others understand the idiosyncrasies of the typical Trekker,” the judge wrote. Mr. Friedman (along with Carol’s attorney Melvin Wulf, a former legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union who was a key lawyer on the Pentagon Papers case) used that opening to claim in their appellate brief that, in 1991, the Supreme Court appeared to smile on works like Mr. Ramer’s: “The primary objective of copyright is … ‘to promote the Progress of Science and Useful Arts.’ To this end, copyright assures authors the right to their original expression, but encourages others to build freely upon the ideas and information conveyed by a work.” Now the question is, does Mr. Ramer’s book represent the advance of science and the useful arts?

Mr. Ramer, who is not insured against damages, desperately wants to keep his book from getting pulped. In a phone interview conducted after he had interviewed some police witnesses for a case, he told N.Y. Law that he is willing to rewrite, for free, all the supposedly offending passages to suit Paramount’s taste. “I’ve even said to them, listen, we’ll give you the book if you just let it live. They said they won’t license it, they want it destroyed. And they will not explain why.” A Paramount spokesman and lawyers declined to comment.

Now 35, Mr. Ramer views his Star Trek devotion as the bootstrap that lifted him from a single-parent household in the South Bronx to the top-rank Bronx High School of Science and to the District Attorney’s office. “There were a lot of bright kids stuck in bad situations,” he said. “We saw that one day our way of thinking would triumph–that smart people would be respected, and that technology would invent new ways for people to express themselves and surpass the limitations that they had.”

The show also gave him some non-Bronx notions about his job: “It’s chock-full of the 60′s progressive idea of criminal behavior as something that can be cured. I’m not sure how valid that is, but it’s a nice idea.” Then, too, the show has featured plenty of trials, including three courts-martial of Captain Kirk. (In the one where Captain Kirk was accused of murder, he was defended against computer evidence by a famous 23rd-century attorney, Sam T. Cogley. The commander was also brought up on charges of resisting mandatory retirement, and for being a woman in a man’s body.)

Carol’s motivation for publishing is less philosophical. Mr. Schragis, the co-founder of Spy magazine who has pushed Carol to the top of the down-market publishing heap–attracting lots of boldface references in the gossip columns in the process–has already gotten into a heap of copyright trouble with other media companies by targeting books for couch potatoes. And Carol’s frequent nemesis has been Paramount, which has sued Carol over five Star Trek books, a Cheers book and a Frasier book. Castle Rock Entertainment had sued over a Seinfeld book, and 20th Century Fox Television had taken Carol to court over three X-Files books. In early February, Carol, spurred by a Federal judge’s earlier ruling that its Seinfeld Achievement Test was not a fair use of copyrighted material, agreed to scuttle all but Mr. Ramer’s book and Beyond Mulder and Scully , a similar fan book that was attacked only for a couple of unauthorized photos. If you own What’s Your Frasier I.Q.? , it’s now officially contraband.

Why is Carol holding out on Mr. Ramer’s book? Mr. Schragis views it as more literary than Seinfeld and the other quiz book offerings. ” The Joy of Trek is sort of a next generation,” he contended. “Paramount’s argument is, well, if under [Seinfeld] this is illegal, this is an infringement, so why don’t we take it farther and call a book like Joy of Trek an infringement.”

Scholars pooh-poohed Mr. Schragis’ notion that academics and serious critics will be the next to get sued. “We’re talking about the spinoff market, not talking about the turgid tome market,” said Jane Ginsburg, a professor of intellectual property law at Columbia University. Mr. Hansen of Fordham agreed: “Its niche in the marketplace is not one the courts are going to bend over backwards to protect.”

But Mr. Hansen, at least, thought Mr. Ramer’s attorney could have more success with the argument that courts are going too far to protect companies’ rights to spinoffs. Copyright law’s original mission, he explained, was to quash copycat plot and title theft (tuxedo-wearing spy fights global bad-guy with a drink in hand, the name’s James Blond). “Maybe he can get the Second Circuit to listen if he makes the argument that it’s time to rethink this whole body of law, the whole way of protecting copyright.”

Mr. Ramer thought he had put together a fair and original commentary. “In order to write about Spock, you have to know some key things about Spock. You can’t write about how important Spock is without talking about what makes him tick as a character. If you say Spock mates only once every seven years, does that mean you are stealing Star Trek ?… In my opinion, there were some episodes that were important for Spock’s character. All I did was write two or three sentences telling you why these are important, and why, if you want to watch Star Trek , in my opinion you need to watch these.”

This prosecutor can’t stand the implication that he is a thief. “They say that I stole; basically, they say I copied the show. When I think of copying a show, I think of selling a videotape on a street, or copying it verbatim and saying it’s yours, or copying it in such dramatic detail so that you don’t have to watch the program. What I did was to help people understand the show, understand what the characters were about.”

As a fan suffering through the dark days of the late 1970′s and early 1980′s, he wrote to Paramount to urge them to put out more Trek product. Now he’s gotten more than he asked for. “I think they’ve just decided after 30 years of fans promoting the show, of really being involved with it, and really proselytizing Star Trek and its vision, they’ve decided it’s a commodity like anything else, and they want to control every aspect of it.”

Leaks Case, Updated

In late January, Vincent Heintz was removed as lead prosecutor in the Federal case against John A. Gotti and bounced back to his old post with Mr. Ramer, in the office of the Bronx District Attorney. The reason: He had guided reporters to material damaging to Mr. Gotti. That blow, which removed the prosecutor who had been on the case the longest and knew the case the deepest, prompted U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White to issue a memo to the remaining three prosecutors on the case. From here on in, they must refer all reporters’ calls to the press office.

Meanwhile, the investigation by the Office of Professional Responsibility into Mr. Heintz’s leaks apparently continues. At least one reporter, Jerry Capeci of the Daily News , who had accused the New York Post ‘s Federal courts reporter, Al Guart, of helping to turn Mr. Heintz in, said Mr. Heintz did not leak to him. “I’ve spoken to the guy like once,” Mr. Capeci said.

Is the New York Post conducting an investigation of whether Mr. Guart deliberately triggered the probe of Mr. Heintz? The Post’s managing editor for news, Stuart Marques, said he spoke to Mr. Guart, who told him he did not “intentionally burn any source … He said he wouldn’t do that. He said he didn’t do that.

“I have confidence in our reporter. Hopefully that’ll be the end of it,” said Mr. Marques.

You can reach N.Y. Law by e-mail at mfleischer@observer.com.