Last month, I wrote about Paramount's lawsuit against Axanar, a crowdfunded Star Trek fan-film.
Paramount has made many claims against the Axanar production team, but the one that's raised the most legal eyebrows is the company's claim of copyright infringement because the Axanar's characters speak Klingon.
The Language Creation Society, a body of linguists who create and promote new, synthetic languages, has filed a fascinating amicus brief (partially written in Klingon!) with the Axanar court, explaining why the extension of copyright to languages is a bad idea that breaks with the history of language creation. The society draws an important distinction between works that describe a language (like a dictionary) and the language itself: while they're fine with Paramount claiming copyright over a Klingon-English dictionary, they do not believe that this means that all the words in Klingon are also Paramount's to license or prohibit.
Despite these fundamental principles of copyright law, Plaintiffs assert copyright in the entirety of the Klingon language. What is a language other than a procedure, process, or system for communication? 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.27 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).
Plaintiffs are free to register copyright any particular expression that they create using the language, such as the Klingon Dictionary or the dialogue of a particular Star Trek episode, but they cannot claim ownership of the building blocks of the language. Compare Grosso v. Miramax Film Corp., 383 F.3d 965, 967 (9th Cir. 2004) (“the only similarities in dialogue between the two works come from the use of common, unprotectable poker jargon”); Keane v. Fox TV Stations, Inc., 297 F.Supp.2d 921, 935 (S.D. Tex. 2004) (“Words and short phrases, names, titles, slogans, facts, information in the public domain, and field-specific jargon are also not amenable to copyright.”) Just as poker jargon is unprotectable, so is Klingon. To grant such protection would be to attempt to leash that which Plaintiffs have no right to control. Plaintiffs will learn that laHI a H nH.28
28 English translation: “brute strength is not the most important asset in a fight.” Latin transliteration: “Suvlu'taHvIS yapbe' HoS neH.”
Axanar [Language Creation Society/Conlang.org]
(Thanks, Marc and Sai!)