Last December, Paramount Pictures and CBS filed a joint suit against the Star Trek fan film Axanar and its producer Alec Peters, claiming that the (as yet unmade) motion picture violated their copyrights on numerable elements having to do with the venerable science fiction franchise. Their initial filing lacked detail, and Axanar was successful in petitioning the court to get them to revise their complaint so that it was possible to have a meaningful exchange on exactly what the supposed copyright violations were.They claimed ownership of such things as pointed ears, the color of the shirts in Axanar costumes, and certain situations and plot situations they felt were unique to Star Trek. The list of infractions provided by Paramount/CBS falls far, far short of the supposed “thousands” of infringements the Axanar film is supposed to have perpetrated, this despite the fact that the film does not actually yet exist.
While the approach used by Paramount/CBS raises eyebrows to begin with, one of the more surprising claims is one of copyright ownership of the Klingon language itself. In their amended complaint, Paramount claims that since the language was created for the 1984 movie Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, that the language is therefore the sole property of Paramount, therefore implying that nobody may use the language without their permission.
While the other various claims appear to have various degrees of merit, this particular line item may have a significance not only for the Paramount/CBS v Axanar suit itself, but may force the court to make a definitive ruling on whether invented languages may be copyrighted at all. According to a Supreme Court ruling handed down in 1879, language is a system for representing thoughts and ideas, and thus not subject to copyright. Whether this applies also to invented or synthetic languages has never been specifically addressed in the courts. The threat of Paramount litigation has almost certainly had a chilling effect on the promulgation and use of the Klingon language. Not only might this case strip Paramount of any illusion of control over the rights to use the Klingon language, it might have a similar effect for any invented language. Tolkein created several languages for his Lord of the Rings book cycle, Warner Bros. has introduced Kryptonian as a spoken language in Man of Steel, the Dothraki language has been developed for the television series version of Game of Thrones, and all of these have a dedicated following. All these languages might experience a new golden age if their copyright status was clarified as being open and accessible to all.
The Language Creation Society has filed an amicus (“friend of the court”) brief with U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner, the judge hearing the Paramount/CBS v Axanar case. It’ll be up to him as to whether he wants to consider the contents of the brief, but it lays out in very clear language why the judge should dismiss at least this one element in the copyright infringement suit against Alec Peters et al.
The brief, authored by Marc Randazza, begins with background that the Klingon language was invented in 1984 by Marc Okrand for Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.
“Before that, when actors played Klingons in Star Trek television programs or movies, they simply uttered guttural sounds or spoke in English (Federation Standard),” writes Randazza. “Given that Paramount Pictures commissioned the creation of some of the language, it is understandable that Paramount might feel some sense of ownership over the creation. But, feeling ownership and having ownership are not the same thing. The language has taken on a life of its own. Thousands of people began studying it, building upon it, and using it to communicate among themselves.”
The Klingon language, Randazza, asserts, is not just a data point in a checklist. It has outgrown its genesis to become a living, breathing language used by thousands of people all over the world. The Klingon-speaking populace is actually larger than that of some naturally occurring spoken languages, and works of fiction are being written in it.
The defendants had already suggested that as it is a language, Paramount could not claim copyright. Paramount responded, in a response filed on April 11, that “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,” stated a plaintiffs’ brief authored by David Grossman at Loeb & Loeb. “The Klingon language is wholly fictitious, original and copyrightable, and Defendants’ incorporation of that language in their works will be part of the Court’s eventual substantial similarity analysis. Defendants’ use of the Klingon language in their works is simply further evidence of their infringement of Plaintiffs’ characters, since speaking this fictitious language is an aspect of their characters.”
This interpretation of copyright law is novel and entertaining, but probably not very accurate. To start with, only a few sentences were created by Marc Okrand for the 1984 movie. The rest of it was something Okrand came up with on his own, and developed over a series of books. The front plate does show that the original book, The Klingon Language Dictionary, is copyright jointly by Pocket Books and Paramount. However, there is a big difference between copyrighting a book about a language, and copyrighting the language itself. The fact that Okrand, not Paramount, created the vast majority of the language on his own also undermines Paramount’s claim.
Here is the amicus brief itself; Randazza makes liberal use of the Klingon language in the brief itself, with footnotes explaining everything. What this clearly demonstrates, by the way, is that expressing ideas in the language is not simple word replacement or a verbal code. Klingon has concepts and ways of expressing ideas that other languages do not have, and is a system for conveying ideas. Randazza also makes the point that a language isn’t just a list of words, and even if it was, the small number of words in Klingon used in the as-yet-unmade Axanar are too short to be protected under copyright.
It’s a good read, and quite humorous. It also makes an excellent case for dismissing at least this portion of the legal complaint, and may provide the U.S. District Court to make history in copyright law. The wheels of justice grind slowly, but grind exceedingly fine, it’s said. Judge Klausner may find himself compelled to address the question of whether an invented language may be copyrighted, and if he does, the ramifications for the Paramount/CBS case may be profound.