Star Trek’s Klingon Language Is At The Center Of A Bizarre Legal Fight

Nerds love to invent languages, and Klingon, from Star Trek, is one of the first. First developed for the franchise as a proper language in 1984 by Star Trek by closed-captioning pioneer and linguist Marc Okrand, it’s rapidly become a popular way for nerds to identify their own. There are even urban legends of nerds getting their children taken away because the kids only speak Klingon. And now it’s the center of an exceptionally strange legal battle.

Last year, Paramount sued the team behind the crowdfunded fan-film Axanar, and as part of the proceedings, the Axanar team demanded Paramount produce a complete list of copyrighted elements from Star Trek. Included among them was, of course, the Klingon language, which would make sense; after all Okrand was paid by Paramount to develop Klingon and wrote the first Klingon dictionaries and phrasebooks as official Star Trek merchandise.

The Axanar team responded, however, that Klingon was a “useful system.” That’s important because the Supreme Court has ruled you can’t copyright useful systems; this is why, for example, your local library doesn’t have to pay royalties for using the Dewey decimal system. Paramount argued that of course it’s not a useful system, because it’s a made-up language for communication between a race of space aliens who do not actually exist.

The problem with that argument is that Klingon is very much a living language. The Klingon Language Institute has focused on translating the English classics into Klingon, and translates current SF stories as well. Official government communications have been issued in Klingon. You can even use Google in Klingon. Few, if any, of these projects were licensed by Paramount, and even if they were, that does raise the question of whether you can copyright a language.

There may not be a ruling. Doing so would create a legal precedent, one way or the other, on constructed languages, and the court may not be willing to make such a decision over a Star Trek fan film. But either way, Paramount might find that Klingon-speakers are just as tough as the Klingons themselves.

(via The Hollywood Reporter)