Can a Language Be Protected by Copyright? What about Star Trek’s Klingon? Paramount Believes So.
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UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021
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Fan filmmakers are battling a major movie studio over the right to use the Klingon language. Axanar Productions created a short film, “Prelude to Axanar” — a 21-minute taste of a full-length Star Trek “fan film” the company hopes to make. The short film has unusually high production values for a fan film. No one would mistake it for a Hollywood blockbuster, but it’s definitely better than an amateurish effort shot in someone’s garage.
Axanar raised $574,434 in an Indigogo campaign aimed at funding a full length version of the movie.
Paramount, which owns the Star Trek franchise, has filed a lawsuit against Axanar alleging, among other things, that it’s a copyright violation for them to use the Klingon language.
This raises an interesting question. Is a language protectable by copyright? Obviously no one can have a copyright on a language such as English; but what if you invented a new language, completely from scratch, as was done with Klingon? Is that protectable?
US copyright law allows for eight different categories of works that are eligible for copyright:
- literary works;
- musical works, including any accompanying words;
- dramatic works, including any accompanying music;
- pantomimes and choreographic works;
- pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works;
- motion pictures and other audiovisual works;
- sound recordings; and
- architectural works.
It’s not clear what a new language would be; is it a literary work? A specific usage of Klingon could certainly be protected by copyright as could a specific usage of any other language. But is the language itself a “literary work?” In literary works, motion pictures, recordings, etc., it’s generally the combination of words that’s protectable, not the words themselves.
Copyright law also very explicitly states:
In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.
Paramount’s amended complaint alleges copyright infringement for the use of the Klingon language.
The Language Creation Society (LCS) is an organization dedicated to “conlanging,” which it describes as “the creation of constructed languages or conlangs, such as Esperanto, Lojban, or Klingon.” LCS filed an amicus (friend of the court) brief in the Paramount/Axanar dispute.
Klingon gave Star Trek characters convincing dialog. But, it broke its chains and took on a life of its own — a life that the Copyright Act has no power to control. Klingon, like any other spoken language, provides tools and a system for expressing ideas. No one has a monopoly over these things, effectively prohibiting anyone from communicating in a language without the creator’s approval.
LCS also claims there is a “living community” of Klingon speakers, including groups of people who have no common language other than Klingon. The brief claims there is even one child who was raised (for a while) as a native speaker of Klingon!
Paramount’s lawyer disputes the statement that Klingon is a system:
This argument is absurd since a language is only useful if it can be used to communicate with people, and there are no Klingons with whom to communicate.
Paramount discounts the fact that there are humans who communicate in Klingon. Whichever way the court rules, it’s an interesting case because it may help define what is and isn’t protectable by copyright.