-Laurel Sutton Senior Strategist & Linguist at Catchword Brand Name Development
The short answer: No one knows.
The long answer: No one knows, and it’s complicated.
As a linguist, I have more than a passing interest in this issue, which has been in the news recently because of a copyright infringement claim by Paramount Pictures and CBS Studios Inc. against the makers of a Star Trek fan film, Axanar (sometimes referred to Star Trek: Axanar). In the complaint, Paramount claims that “the Axanar Works infringe Plaintiffs’ works by using innumerable copyrighted elements of Star Trek, including its settings, characters, species, and themes.” Among the very long list of copyrighted elements is the Klingon language:
Klingonese or Klingon, the native language of Qo’noS, was first spoken in Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979. It was used in several works moving forward, including Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. (p. 31)
Factually true. But is the Klingon language copyrighted, as Paramount claims? Is it even copyrightable?
A bit of Trek history, to clarify: In the original Star Trek series (1966-69), the Klingons (an alien race) spoke only English. In the first Star Trek movie, a bit of spoken Klingon was heard, but this was not meaningful language; it was made up to sound “alien” by James Doohan (who played Scotty). By the time of the third movie in 1984, the producers decided that they needed “real” Klingon for the Klingon characters to speak, and so engaged linguist Marc Okrand to construct some basic vocabulary, phonology, and grammar. The Klingon language was featured in many Star Trek series and movies over the years, requiring more development by Okrand, who published The Klingon Dictionary in 1985. CBS Television Studios owns the copyright to this book and to other canonical descriptions of the language.
But once Klingon was let loose into the wild, so to speak, it grew and evolved and became a true living language, with thousands at least passingly familiar with it, and a few dozen completely fluent. One man even raised his son as a native speaker, bilingual in English and Klingon. Although only words and grammatical forms invented by Okrand are considered canonical by the Klingon Language Institute (which is not affiliated the Paramount or CBS, but the studios do retain Klingon-related copyright and trademarks, and share rights to any original KLI works written in the language), necessity has demanded that speakers coin new expressions.
So: If Paramount and/or CBS can claim ownership of Okrand’s work-for-hire on the TV shows, the movies, and the dictionary, what about the neologisms not created by Okrand? What about A Klingon Christmas Carol, a stage version of Dickens’ Christmas Carol performed entirely in Klingon? What about ‘u’, the Klingon opera performed in Europe? And what about the Klingon course offered by Duolingo, the language-learning app?
Paramount owns several trademarks for the word “Klingon”, for toys, computer games, and even beer and wine (they never miss a chance to monetize their IP). But it’s unclear if they’ve tried to trademark individual words for goods or services. In a quick search, I couldn’t find a TM for bat’leth, the iconic Klingon bladed weapon, but I did find an abandoned mark for Qapla Productions – Qapla’ is the Klingon word for “success”. (The abandonment was due to non-response, not opposition.)
The ownership of Klingon is just a small part of the Axanar lawsuit, but it raises many questions about the ownership of constructed languages. Of course no reasonable person would claim to own “natural” languages like English or Mandarin; ownership is restricted to chunks of text (copyright) or use of specific words and phrases in commerce (trademark). Constructed languages, by their very nature, imply a creator and the intellectual property rights that go with it. Thought experiment: How many people would have to speak Klingon natively before Paramount could no longer claim ownership? Ten? Five hundred? Five thousand?
Marc Randazza, a ferocious free-speech defender, is convinced that Paramount cannot have a copyright on the Klingon language, and he lays out his reasoning in an amicus brief for the Language Creation Society. While not taking sides, the group implored the judge to not allow the Klingon language to remain one of the copyrighted materials that Paramount/CBS is claiming is infringed by Axanar. Randazza’s brief, which quotes liberally from and in Klingon, is a thing of beauty.
“Now that Klingon has become an actual living language, Paramount seeks to reach out and stake its ownership by using copyright law. But as ‘Klingons do not surrender,’ neither do those who speak Klingon.” (p. 2)
PS. Okrand is an executive producer of a new documentary called Conlanging, all about the history of constructed languages, opening (hopefully) this fall.