May. 9th, 2016

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Copyright, Language, Star Trek: 'Star Trek' Lawsuit: The Debate Over Klingon Language Heats Up by Eriq Gardner at The Hollywood Reporter

I first heard about it because some attorneys I know from my stint at Microsoft were talking about it, and of course I am both delighted and intrigued, because it combines two of my favorite geeky loves, SFF and IP law.

Basically, Axanar is a crowdfunded Star Trek film series. There was Prelude to Axanar a few years ago, and then this one, which is a feature-length film Star Trek: Axanar. Paramount Studios owns the Star Trek franchise (I suppose I should say allegedly, because there's a challenge to that as a part of all this, but it is at least commonly believed that they own it), and traditionally allows fan-made projects to occur as long as they're not selling anything (e.g., tickets, copies of the finished project, merchandise).

At the end of 2015, Paramount Pictures and CBS filed a lawsuit claiming that the Axanar works infringe their rights, including by making use of the Klingon language.

AND NOW EVERYONE IS DEBATING WHETHER YOU CAN COPYRIGHT KLINGON AND I AM FILLED WITH SO MUCH FUCKING DELIGHT.

I've seen a lot of people dismiss this as a bit of a pointless discussion, because it's really about the broader Star Trek IP and it doesn't really matter whether this one language is copyrightable, but if this precedence is set, it could have a hugely damaging impact on coding languages, which are arguably also created languages.

Once the Axanar defendants made their claim that Klingon is not copyrightable because it is a useful system, Paramount and CBS argued that: 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.

The Language Creation Society filed an amicus brief supporting the defends that discusses whether the Klingon language is copyrightable, and it is glorious: you can read the brief here, and see how it incorporates Klingon into the brief itself. (An amicus brief, or friend-of-the-court brief, is a document filed by people who aren't directly involved in the litigation, but who have a strong interest in what is being litigation, and offer the court information and arguments the court may consider. They show up pretty often in IP law, where people are terrified of what sort of precedent will be set, especially by judges who aren't super familiar with the nuances of technology.)

Now, with 250,000 copies of a Klingon dictionary said to have been sold, Klingon language certification programs being offered, the Microsoft search engine Bing presenting English-to-Klingon translations, one Swedish couple performing their marriage vows in Klingon, foreign governments providing official statements in Klingon and so on, the Language Creation Society is holding up Klingon as having freed the "bounds of its textual chains."

Ultimately, the amicus brief comes back to the theory that Klingon is not copyrightable.

"What is a language other than a procedure, process, or system for communication?" asks the society. "What is a language's vocabulary but a collection of words? The vocabulary and grammar rules of a language provide instructions for a speaker to articulate thoughts and ideas. One cannot disregard grammatical rules and still be intelligible, and creating one's own vocabulary only worked well for the Bard. Vocabulary and grammar are no more protectable than the bookkeeping system in Baker v. Selden, 101 U.S. 99, 101 (1879)."

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