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May 4 / scholarscooperative

Copyright and Klingon: An Interesting Case Study

An interesting court case came to my attention recently, one which is perhaps not immediately applicable to the scholarly world but still may hold some interest. The lawsuit involves Paramount Pictures and CBS filing suit against Axanar Productions, Inc., a production company involved in the creation of a crowdfunded Star Trek fan film. Included among the many pieces of intellectual property that Paramount and CBS claim are being utilized by Axanar illegally is the fictitious language of Klingon, spoken by a race of the same name in the Star Trek universe. Before getting into that, though, a brief history of the production and ensuing lawsuit:

In 2014, Axanar Productions, Inc. released a 21-minute short film titled Prelude to Axanar. It was crowdfunded, and served as a sort of proof-of-concept and as a pitch to justify future donations in support of more productions. Another crowdfunding drive raised money for the construction of a studio and sound stage, and finally a third was started in order to support the filming of Axanar itself, envisioned as a feature-length, professional-quality film. The project was funded in August of 2015, and more information can be found in the production’s IndieGoGo page and its related pitch video.

In December of 2015, Paramount and CBS filed suit, claiming that Axanar planned to use a slew of copyrighted material. This initial complaint, which can be found here, was bounced back by Axanar‘s lawyers, claiming it was not specific enough. In March of 2016, an amended complaint was filed which included a list of specific instances of copyright infringement. Included on this list were things like the pointed ears sported by Vulcan characters, the uniforms and logos associated with Starfleet and the Federation, and, as mentioned above, the spoken Klingon language.

After a bit more back-and-forth, a third party entered the scene; the Language Creation Society filed a brief in order to support the notion that Klingon as a language is ineligible for copyright. The Klingon language was invented by Marc Okrand in 1984 for the film Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, and it is upon this basis that Paramount and CBS claim to own copyright on it. However, the Language Creation Society’s brief notes that the language has developed far beyond what it was at its creation, and that this development has mostly been at the hands of Star Trek fans. It argues that Klingon has surpassed its roots and become a full-fledged language and, as such, is not entitled to copyright protection. The amicus brief filed by the Language Creation Society can be found in full here.

Why might this be important? Well, first and foremost, the United States court system has yet to address the eligibility of constructed spoken languages for copyright. Beyond that, the ruling may hold some significance for all constructed languages; an article in The Hollywood Reporter notes that coding languages, which are certainly artificially constructed, could be affected by this ruling were the judge to rule in favor of Paramount and CBS. In that case, it is not a huge leap to imagine the inventors of a coding language controlling its use with licenses if they are able to copyright the language itself.