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The Battle for the Klingon Language

Radio Motherboard takes on copyright vs Klingon, a decidedly terrestrial battle.

Even if you're not a Trekkie, you've got to feel for the Klingons of Earth. Their language is under threat of being taken back by the very company that commissioned its creation, raising the very important question: Can a language even be copyrighted?

News that Paramount is suing the creators of a Star Trek fan film for copyright infringement quickly spread across the galaxy last week. More traditional copyright issues such as the likenesses of characters came into play, but the company also said it owned the Klingon language, a claim that could have far-reaching implications.


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When I first heard about the lawsuit, I kind of rolled my eyes. I'm not a Trekkie, how could this possibly matter? It quickly became clear that if companies can copyright languages, they can copyright the means of creating culture. Paramount invented the language, but should it own Klingon translations of Hamlet? Should it own a novel completely unrelated to Star Trek that a passionate Klingon writes? Could it require licenses for people to recite their wedding vows in Klingon?

What about other constructed languages like Dothraki from Game of Thrones? And what about software and programming languages?

And so I decided to look at the issue from a few different angles. I called up Sai, founder of the Language Creation Society, to talk about why his organization is defending the Klingons. I called up qurgh lungqIj, a Klingon from the distant planet of Cincinnati, to talk about the rich Klingon culture that has evolved since it was first invented for the Star Trek movies. And then I called up Motherboard contributing editor and copyright expert Sarah Jeong to talk about whether the Klingons stand a chance.

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Show notes:

Prelude to Axanar is available here, it's nuts!

:37: This group is Il Troubadore. Their Klingon music is available here

1:30: Here's the legal brief, it's great.

1:50: Learn Elvish


2:00: Learn Na'vi

2:04: Learn Dothraki

2:20: Here's more about Esperanto

3:00: More from Okrand here:

He was also on the "Look at His Butt" podcast last month, which was pretty entertaining. Okrand said toward the end that he wasn't sure who owned the Klingon language, but emphasized that he, personally, doesn't own the rights to it.

4:40: Klingon Language Institute

5:00: You've not experienced Shakespeare until you've read him in the original Klingon.

5:10: Klingon wedding vows

5:20: Klingon is coming to Duolingo

6:30: Klingon resources mentioned in this interview:

Conversational Klingon casette

Power Klingon

Klingon dictionary

The Klingon Way

Klingon for the Galactic Traveler

14:00: The Secret Fighting Arts of the Warrior Race. I was under the impression the book never got published … it did, but it seems quite rare.

18:00: The Language Creation Society

Ithkuil is a "Philosophical design for a theoretical language."

19:00: Sai has made two languages, you can learn more about them here

20:00: More about Lojban!

28:15: Quenya is an elvish language developed by JRR Tolkien.

38:30: This is everything you need to read about how the Klingon suit relates to Oracle v Google.

42:50: Baker v Selden