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A Suit Against Star Trek Fans Will Decide Who Owns the Klingon Language

A dispute over a fan-made film might have far-reaching consequences for made-up languages after CBS and Paramount said they owned the Klingon language, a claim many Trekkers say is "ghuy'cha'."

A Klingon hitchhiker in 2007 near Vulcan, Canada, where this sort of thing is apparently normal. (MICHEL COMTE/AFP/Getty Images)

The problem is, people love Star Trek. People loved the utopian-minded original series so much they resurrected it after it was canceled, rewatching it in syndication, gathering at conventions, and eventually inspiring the movies, spin-offs, and novels that turned the show into a universe. These same people went on loving Star Trek even after the TV series based in that universe stopped being good or popular, even after the J.J. Abrams–led reboot movies turned into action flicks that lacked the peace, love, and understanding of the original. Some of them made their own versions of Star Trek, fan films that were mostly pretty amateurish but made with love. Some people didn't go that far but kept going to conventions and passing down their devotion to their children. As fandoms go, Trekkers can be pretty high-minded: When a woman made headlines in 1996 for wearing a Star Trek uniform while serving on a jury, CNN reported that she liked the show "because it promotes inclusion, tolerance, peace, and faith in humankind.

It's hard to love something fully when it belongs to someone else, however, and that's really where the problems begin. The conflict between love and property, or between art and capitalism, has resulted in a lawsuit brought by CBS and Paramount (the companies that own the Star Trek franchise's intellectual property) against a well-funded group of fans who planned to make a Star Trek feature film. The suit may have been intended merely to protect Trek IP and shut down an unauthorized production, but it has now sparked a fairly esoteric debate over whether its possible to own a fictional language and highlighted a fundamental conflict between Trekkers and the corporations that control Star Trek.

The group of fans, Axanar Productions, raised over $1 million through crowdfunding last year; executive producer Alec Peters told the Wrap last year, "Although we fall under the fan movie, we've tried to make the product as good as [what's] coming out of the studio." A 20-minute short the group created, Prelude to Axanar, came out in 2014 and has over 2 million views on YouTube. It does indeed look pretty good, even if the computer animation is cheesy, and it features uniforms, logos, characters, and even actors who appeared in various official Star Trek franchises. CBS/Paramount has detailed a list of alleged copyright violations in response to a request from Axanar's lawyer, but the strangest and most far-reaching claim is that the Klingon language itself—known as tlhIngan Hol—is a copyrighted work.

This is a pretty serious question for Trekkers. Fan-made Trek films use obviously copyrighted materials all the time, a practice that CBS seems to be cracking down on as of late. (One thing Axanar has asked CBS to do is issue guidelines for fan films that spell out what is and is not infringement when it comes to Star Trek.) But Klingon has spilled far, far beyond the bounds of the on-screen Trek universe.

The language was created in the 80s by linguist Marc Okrand, who was hired for the job by Paramount; when the Klingon dictionary came out, it was therefore owned by the movie company. Since then, the language has spread, and though a lawyer for Paramount/CBS claimed that a language is "only useful if it can be used to communicate with people" and that "there are no Klingons with whom to communicate," there are actually quite a few humans who can communicate in Klingon. There's both a Klingon Language Institute and a Klingon translation of Hamlet; you can translate words into Klingon using Bing; a linguist once tried to raise a child who was a native Klingon speaker; one British couple exchanged Klingon wedding vows. Klingon may have been invented for a movie, but it is an actual language now, and the question becomes abstract: Can you own a language?

In a brief filed on behalf of the Language Creation Society, a nonprofit devoted to promoting the creation of new languages*, lawyer Marc Randazza says the answer is no. "No court has squarely addressed the issue of whether a constructed spoken language is entitled to copyright protection," he notes, but argues that "to claim copyright in a language is to claim ownership over all possible thoughts and artistic expression that might employ that language... a breathtakingly vast legal assertion that encompasses particular expression that the claimed copyright owner, by definition, cannot even conceive of." Paramount may own the original Klingon dictionary and the lines of dialogue spoken by actors playing Klingons, but it can't—or at least shouldn't—own anything anyone could say in Klingon. Randazza cites one US Supreme Court decision ruling that a system of bookkeeping was not subject to copyright, but when it comes to copyrighting a system of grammar and vocabulary, a ruling either way will be going boldly where no court has gone before.

Even Orkrand, Klingon's originator, isn't sure who has claim to the language. "This is not the first time that the who owns Klingon issue came up," Okrand said during a podcast recently. "To the best of my knowledge, it has never been officially settled by anybody."

The Klingon language question is just one aspect of the Axanar lawsuit—there are more than a dozen other copyright claims that are much more clear cut. But few people will care whether Garth of Izar or the planet Archanis IV are ruled to be the intellectual property of Paramount/CBS. If Klingon itself is ruled to be a copyrighted work, it will have big implications for people who want to study it or other constructed languages—geeky pursuits, sure, but also pursuits born out of love.

"There are significant works of literary value regularly created in the Klingon language today, authored by people who have no affiliation whatsoever with Plaintiffs," Randazza writes. "Allowing this Sword of Kahless to hang over anyone who wishes to speak or write in Klingon does not serve the purpose of the Copyright and Patent Clause, and instead robs the world of valuable expressive works."

*Correction 4/28: An earlier version of this article misstated the mission of the Language Creation Society—it promotes language creation but does not study constructed languages.