It is fairly uncommon to hear about a constructed language being taken to court over copyright claims, at least non-computer programming languages. This is why it was so surprising to hear that the Klingon language was one of the focuses of a case between CBS and Paramount, the owners of the Star Trek properties, and the makers of a fan film.
The case is still ongoing over the use of imagery and elements of the Star Trek franchise, but the judge has decided to not rule on the copyrightability of the Klingon language itself, at least at this point. This was just as the Language Creation Society submitted an amicus brief in support of the film makers. The case is now looking at all borrowed elements from the franchise as a whole, not individually. This was a prudent move by the judge to help the prosecution’s case.
The claim against the Klingon language itself was very interesting, and I kind of wish it was taken further. A constructed language could be viewed as a copyrightable work (the Language Creation Society disagrees in their amicus linked to above), a natural language cannot.
The Klingon language was devised by James Doohan for the 1979 Star Trek film, and developed by Dr. Marc Okrand for further usages. Although there are few fluent speakers, estimates run from around twenty to one hundred, there are Trekkies all over the world that know a few phrases either from the show or the various Klingon learning tools. With the help of Dr. Okrand’s dictionary and other aids, works such as Hamlet, Gilgamesh, and A Christmas Carol have been translated into Klingon.
Klingon continues to evolve, as well. Dr. Okrand, “continues to support the language, attending conferences, publishing additional books and providing additional vocabulary and grammatical clarification…”. New words are added to the dictionary to make the initially unwieldy space-battle-focused language useful in daily conversations. Words and phrases for “envelope,” “cassette,” “quantum physics,” and even the “United States of America,” for example, have been added to the lexicon.
While the number of fluent speakers remains quite small, they do exist around the world. Furthermore, an American computational linguist raised his son to be bilingual in English and Klingon (although the attempt ultimately failed due to the limited lexicon and sparse speakers).
Dr. Okrand did weigh in on the case as it concerns the Klingon Language.
Marc Okrand, who created Klingon in 1984, and published the first Klingon dictionary in 1985, agrees. “Languages are something that you should use and you should feel free to use them and be encouraged to use them,” he tells NPR’s Michel Martin. “And not worry about someone standing over your shoulder saying: yes, you can say that; no, you can’t; yes, you can use that language; no, you can’t. Of course you can, and you should.” – via NPR
The film that was taken to court was created as a fan fiction of Star Trek by Axanar Productions, and the elements were taken intentionally to create their own story. Anaxar Productions knew there may be copyright issues, and so the production’s executive met with CBS representatives more than once. From their FAQ page:
Why didn’t Axanar Productions get CBS and/or Paramount’s permission to make PRELUDE TO AXANAR and AXANAR?
Our understanding is that CBS doesn’t establish guidelines or give out explicit permission to fans to produce fan films (despite what you may have read to the contrary). According to CBS, every fan production relies on the benevolence of CBS in order to exist. Nevertheless, Axanar Production’s executive, Alec Peters, met frequently with CBS representatives seeking guidance.
The last meeting between Alec and CBS took place at the Las Vegas Star Trek convention in August of 2015. At that meeting, CBS’s representatives told Alec they would not say what a fan film could or could not do but that they’d let him know if AXANAR went too far. – via Anaxar
CBS did let Peters know that they production went too far by filing a lawsuit that he first heard about in an online article, according to Peters. This is also well after the Prelude to Axanar short, which debut July 26, 2014, a prequel which raised no ire from CBS. Both the short and feature film were funded by Kickstarter.
There may be hope for the film, but I have doubts. I believe CBS may be within its rights to shut down the film, but I am left wondering why it would want to. As TechDirt noted when the case was building:
given that [CBS] has seen value, or at least a lack of harm, in allowing other fan-made works to exist, why should a quality fan-made film suddenly be a threat? If anything, as Peters noted, allowing fans to grow the universe, to participate in its creation and foster new and deeper fandom should only benefit the Star Trek franchise. Upping the quality of that creation would, it seems, benefit the franchise even more. – via TechDirt
To me, the best outcome for CBS would be to take a cut from the production and let it exist. The film producers claim, “Axanar Productions made a settlement offer to Paramount and CBS within 24 hours of the lawsuit being delivered to the production’s offices, but it was rejected without a counter proposal.” If the film is great fans will be reinvigorated and end up purchasing more licensed materials. If the film is mediocre or bad, CBS can truthfully claim that it was unofficial/non-canon and move on (it wouldn’t be the first time something sub-par came from the franchise). Either way they would get paid.
Fan works don’t usually have an awkward place in respects to copyright law–they are usually protected under Fair Use for being non-profit works that do not have any effect on the value or market of the protected work. But, fan fictions are getting ever popular as more people desire to, and have outlets to, interact with their favourite works. As interaction increases, so do opportunities to profit from the fan works, whether this means making beaded and knitted superheroes to sell at the local comic convention, or writing one of the most popular works in the last few years (with impressive book sales, a film adaptation, a hold on cultural consciousness, and the privilege of being one of last year’s top ten most challenged books). As copyright laws get tighter, and I suspect longer, the avenues to profit on works built upon other works may change, but for now there’s licensing and expunging the sparkling vampires.
Ken Sawdon is a Footage Curation and Metadata Specialist at Dissolve Ltd., a startup stock footage and photo company. He is a recent MLIS graduate from the University of Alberta, where his activities included co-chair of the Forum for Information Professionals student conference and community activist and blogger for the Future Librarians for Intellectual Freedom. He has been a volunteer librarian for the Aero Space Museum of Calgary as well as a Collections Assistant at Fort Calgary. He loves wading through policy and legislation, especially intellectual property issues and professional association rhetoric. You can find and connect with him at @kainous on Twitter.