Is There Copyright in Klingon?

Major Hollywood studios are suing the makers of a fan-generated short Star Trek film for violation of intellectual property rights, including the film’s use of the Klingon language invented by the creators of Star Trek.

Does the claim about the use of Klingon make any sense? I don’t believe that the claim focuses on substantial use of passages of text from existing screenplays. The characters in the fan film are using their own texts according to the rules of the artificially-created language.

If not copyright, is there some other kind of intellectual property that might be infringed by the use of Klingon? Could a language be patented?

What rights accrue in computer programming languages? Are they languages in the same sense, or are they results-oriented in a way that makes them different?

Comments

  1. The source material for the Klingon language, i.e. its lexical corpus and system of rules, did not arise organically. It is the work of one or more authors. Unlike Esperanto, its authors did not intend to release it to the public domain but rather as a component of a franchise consisting of works. As works subject to copyright, it makes sense that their use is an infringement.

  2. Does not copyright require that the work subject to copyright be ‘fixed’? Is a set of rules sufficiently fixed that any text created according to those rules is also fixed for this purpose?

    And what of the Klingon dictionaries created privately? (Google produces 118,000 results to a search for “Klingon Dictionary”.) Do they violate the original copyright?

    I can understand a claim that the use of Klingon is one piece of evidence among others that the fan film as a whole violates a look-and-feel copyright in the Star Trek work, or constitute passing off (though I don’t think the connection to Star Trek is disputed.) My question was about the copyrightability of the language itself.

  3. I feel the lean towards John’s point that there is something less than “fixed” when it comes to a schema for communication (i.e. a language). That schema can be used to form an original expression that is fixed (i.e. the script, assuming the script was original language), but the schema itself is not a fixed expression. I can’t agree with “A. Lawyer” that a “lexical corpus and system of rules” is perforce the subject of copyright if this system/schema is more akin to a procedure.
    A procedure is not copyrightable. Protection under copyright does not extend to any “idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied.”
    With respect to whether this is comparable to the programming language copyright issue, the issue of code copyright is somewhat complicated and in flux (e.g. Oracle v. Google ). But unlike the Oracle v. Google case, where the holding is that you can’t use “packages” of code (like pre-assembled mini programs written in Java), I think the Klingon case is not about the use of packaged expressions in Klingon. It’s a party trying to assert exclusive rights over the base language itself. As Java is to a package of code or API written in Java, Klingonese is to a fixed, unique expression spoken in Kningonese.
    If this claim is about the use of the language itself, and not about blocks of expression using that language, I don’t think it can meet the bar for infringement.

  4. Slate magazine published an article about the case of Google vs Oracle about Java APIs in which copyright on Klingon (and other constructed languages) was mentioned.

    When is a package of software a “language” e.g. Fortran, C+, Java (?), and when it is just software that is protected by copyright anyway e.g. MS Office, TurboTax, World of Warcraft, Facebook, my phone app? Is it a meaningful label in law?

  5. Interesting follow up, a Brief of Amicus Curiae was filed last week by an attorney for the Language Creation Society in US Federal Court.
    Financial Post has a bit on it:

    The brief provides numerous examples of the widespread cultural use and academic study of Klingon. The court document is also liberally peppered with Klingon proverbs, words, typeface and attitude. To wit, the society says the film studio may live to regret making a legal claim on the Klingon language: “By opening this door, Plaintiffs will learn ‘rut neH ‘oH vIta’Qo’ Qob law’ yu’ jang.’”

    A footnote explains the citation: “This Klingon proverb translates to ‘Sometimes the only thing more dangerous than a question is an answer.’”

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