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Second Circuit Ends Star Trek's Troubles With Tardigrades

cute microscopic life form capable of surviving outer space
By Joseph Fawbush, Esq. | Last updated on

The idea of a giant tardigrade is terrifying. Tardigrades are real, microscopic animals that can survive in almost any environment. They are the only known animals to survive in the vacuum of space and after exposure to solar radiation. European researchers found this out after their "Tardigrades in Space" experiment in 2007, known as TARDIS. Eight-legged with a sucker mouth, they look like a post-apocalyptic worm, right out of an H.P Lovecraft book or sci-fi horror movie. Which is why it was inevitable, perhaps, that a giant tardigrade named Ripper was featured in three episodes of Star Trek: Discovery in 2017.

Star Trek was not the first creative team to feature a tardigrade. Even the Cartoon Network's Adventure Time has taken inspiration from the hardy micro-animals. In 2014, Anas Osama Ibrahim Abdin submitted a videogame idea to various online forums, including a blog and YouTube channel, which prominently featured a tardigrade in space. However, Abdin did not submit a copyright until 2018. That year Abdin also filed a lawsuit against CBS, claiming Star Trek copied elements of the videogame in its tardigrade story arc.

A Tardigrade in Space Is an Unprotectable Fact

Facts and ideas are not copyrightable. Only expressions of an idea can be submitted for copyright. Since a tardigrade is found in nature, has eight legs, a sucker mouth, and can survive in space, those parts of the work are in the public domain. According to a unanimous Second Circuit panel, “Abdin's space-traveling tardigrade is an unprotectible idea because it is a generalized expression of a scientific fact -- namely, the known ability of a tardigrade to survive in space."

Even if the idea of a space-traveling giant tardigrade was a copyrightable idea, the copyright doctrine of scènes à faire would prevent Abdin from proceeding with the suit, according to the Second Circuit. Under this doctrine, standard themes relevant to a certain genre, like a train-robbing bandit in a Western, are uncopyrightable. Similarly, a giant and terrifying alien creature is a standard trope in science fiction.

The Second Circuit closed by quoting Spock, of course, writing that protecting the “generic and common characteristics" in Abdin's work would be "highly illogical."

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