Klingons on Earth will have to hold their breath a while longer—a federal judge in California District Court has decided to allow a copyright case against the creators of a Star Trek fan film to move forward. That means we may ultimately have a decision on whether Paramount owns a copyright on the Klingon language invented for the series and used by millions of enthusiasts around the world.
I covered the intricacies of the issue in our Radio Motherboard podcast last week, but, basically, if Paramount has a copyright on Klingon, it threatens not only the fan culture that has arisen around the language, but also could have implications for the software world and anyone who uses a "conlang" that was created by someone else.
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Here's the short version of what's going on. A production company called Axanar Productions is trying to create a very high-quality Star Trek fan film, using more than $1 million raised on Kickstarter. Paramount is suing the company, alleging copyright infringement. Paramount claims that elements of the film, such as the Vulcans' pointy ears, the command insignias, and the names of planets and characters infringe on its copyright.
Most interestingly and importantly, however, Paramount is claiming that the use of the Klingon language, which it paid a linguist to construct in the early 1980s, is copyright infringement. This claim raises the question: Can languages be copyrighted?
Klingon has evolved to the point where some people use it in their everyday lives. There are novels written in and translated to Klingon, a Klingon linguistic society and associated journal, and Klingon songs. The Language Creation Society filed a legal brief in late April claiming that Klingon and other "conlangs" such as Elvish (from Lord of the Rings) or Dothraki (from Game of Thrones), should be free to use by the masses.
"Allowing copyright claims to a language would create a monopoly on use extending far beyond what is needed to protect the original work or to claim credit for the language's creation," the society wrote in a statement.
Judge Gary Klausner decided Monday that the case should be allowed to move forward, denying Axanar's motion to dismiss. He didn't make any sort of final decision about Paramount's copyright claims, merely saying that they had sufficiently identified a combination of Star Trek elements that the company might plausibly own.
Axanar's initial defense relied heavily on the idea that Star Trek was already borrowing from "non-protectable" copyright elements, arguing that Paramount can't copyright the name "Vulcan" (a Roman god), nor the race's pointy ears (elves have traditionally had pointy ears), nor the geometric shapes of the Starlet command insignia. Klausner decided, however, that taken in combination, Paramount might plausibly have a case.
"Although the Court declines to address whether Plaintiffs' Claims will prosper at this time, the Court does find Plaintiffs' claims will live long enough to survive Defendants' Motion to Dismiss," Klausner wrote, showing that he at least has a sense of humor.
It appears as though Klausner is willing to consider the Klingon language as part of that combination of potentially copyrightable elements. He wrote the court has not yet considered "the issue of whether languages, and specifically the Klingon language, are copyrightable."
Sai, the founder of the Language Creation Society, told me his group will continue to monitor the case and that it plans on re-filing its legal brief when the court officially decides to consider the Klingon issue. It's increasingly looking like the warrior race of the Klingon people will have to defend their language in court.