Is Klingon, a language created by a linguistics professor for a movie, the property of CBS and Paramount? That’s a central question raised by a lawsuit against a fan project aimed at producing an original, independent “Star Trek” film.
A group of linguists is boldly going where no one has gone before.
In a legal brief peppered with idioms written in the original Klingon, the Language Creation Society — a California nonprofit devoted to supporting “constructed languages” — is trying to convince a court that the alien language from “Star Trek” is a real, “living” form of communication.
The made-up language is at the heart of a big copyright case involving CBS and Paramount, which own the rights to the “Star Trek” franchise, and some filmmakers trying to produce their own, original “Star Trek” film. If the studios win the fight, it would deal a major blow to the crowdfunded movie and to subsequent fan creations.
The fan project, known as “Star Trek: Axanar,” comes with a kind of extended trailer that features some spoken Klingon. CBS and Paramount have sued, alleging that the unlicensed use of Klingon amounts to copyright infringement. The film’s defenders say Klingon speakers are being suppressed by CBS and Paramount so that the companies can maintain total control over their intellectual property.
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The brief, a “friend of the court” filing that supports the filmmakers, argues that CBS and Paramount appear to have laid claim not to specific words or phrases of Klingon, but to the entire Klingon language, which is unreasonable because Klingon has transcended “Star Trek” and can now be found throughout the real world.
Klingon isn’t a nonsense language. It behaves like a real one. It’s the creation of Marc Okrand, who taught linguistics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in the 1970s. He was hired by “Star Trek” producers to develop Klingon for the film “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.” It has rules and grammar and a vocabulary.
You can find friends who exclusively speak Klingon to one another, the brief claims. You can watch YouTube language tutorials. Even Duolingo, the language-teaching app with more than 100 million users, “offers” a forthcoming course in Klingon on its website. More than 75,000 people have asked to be notified when it’s available.
The legal brief goes on to argue that Klingon has come to fascinate not just “Star Trek” fans but also academics, thespians (who can perform Klingon translations of Shakespeare, for example) and even tech companies such as Microsoft, whose Bing can translate Klingon text.
In many cases, including Bing, content creators have partnered with CBS and Paramount to develop these offerings. But the fan film “Axanar” doesn’t appear to have the studios’ blessing, which is why things have landed in court.
To win the argument, the film’s defenders have to describe Klingon as a universal phenomenon that can’t be copyrighted, just like the law prohibits the copyrighting of general “systems” and “methods of operation,” according to Charles Duan, a copyright expert at the consumer group Public Knowledge.
“There would be great danger to allowing the copyright power to extend to prevent others from speaking a language,” Duan wrote in a blog post Thursday.
CBS and Paramount didn’t respond to a request for comment.