It’s a veritable Mek’ba over Klingon language use!
Star Trek enthusiasts are just about the most passionate among the many entertainment industry fandoms.
Because there hasn’t been any new television episodes recently (though a new CBS production is slated to begin filming soon), and the latest movies have been less than satisfying for many series buffs, veteran entrepreneur Alec Peters raised $101,000 on Kickstarter to produce Prelude to Axanar. This short film would then inspire more contributions for a larger production, as an offshoot of the Star Trek: New Voyages fan-based series.
Of course, Hollywood rewarded the creativity and capitalistic spirit shown by Peters and his supporters…exactly the way we’ve come to expect!
Paramount and CBS are suing the producers of a “Star Trek” fan film over alleged copyright infringement and late last week filed an updated complaint. The amended filing gives a more detailed account of alleged copyright violations in “Prelude to Axanar,” the studio’s previously-released short film.
Among the list of offending elements, CBS and Paramount say the film’s use of pointy eared Vulcans, the gold uniform shirts, and the Klingon language, were an unauthorized use of the “Star Trek” lore, CBS and Paramount argue about the crowdfunded project.
Citing copyright infringement on a fantasy language may be problematic. As my teen son (who dressed as Mr. Spock this Halloween) noted: “How can you copyright babble? It is not logical.”
This is how, at least in theory:
“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.”
It is the use of the Klingon Language that is at the center of the Mek’ba, the Klingon ritual of submitting evidence in trial.
The Language Creation Society has now filed an amicus brief challenging Paramount’s dubious claim. Marc Randazza (a first amendment attorney) and Alex Shepard filed a legal document filled with Klingon words, its alphabet, and cultural references.
“To claim copyright in a language is to claim ownership over all possible thoughts and artistic expression that might employ that language,” the attorneys argue in the amicus brief. “If not ownership, such a claim at least provides some support for the idea that the copyright owner could, at some point, simply pull the plug on any future development in the language.”
…The attorneys point to previous case law, including on constructed programming languages. In Computer Assocs. Int’l v. Alta, the court found terms in programming languages that were required to accomplish tasks in an operating system were not copyright-protected. In Zalewski v. Cicero Builder, meanwhile, the, brief points out that court found that “if an idea ‘can only be expressed in a limited number of ways,’ those means of expression ‘cannot be protected, lest one author own the idea itself.'”
“Copyright law protects the means of expressing ideas or concepts, but it does not give the copyright holder the right to exclude others from making use of the ideas or concepts themselves,” the brief argues. “Neither is one permitted to register copyright in a word.”
The Language Creation Society also highlighted the importance of the judgement on the future use of constructed languages (conlangs), which are developed for a variety of productions (e.g., Dothraki for Game of Thrones).
Allowing copyright claims to a language would create a monopoly on use extending far beyond what is needed to protect the original work or to claim credit for the language’s creation. The potential threat of a lawsuit for merely using a conlang, or creating new works to make it more accessible, has a chilling effect; it makes conlangers, poets, authors, educators, and others less likely to build on and enjoy each others’ work, to the detriment of conlanging in general.
We believe that everyone has the right to use any language — including conlangs — without having to ask anyone’s permission. We hope that our participation in this lawsuit will help to make this belief into legal precedent.
I wish the Language Creation Society a glorious victory.