Legal phasers fired to protect Klingon language

vubpu’ jon nuchpu’. jonbe’ tlhInganpu. That translates to “Cowards take hostages. Klingons do not.” The Language Creation Society, based in Ridgecrest, Calif., has declared war. The group, as Randazza Legal Group PLLC, has filed an amicus brief to speak up on behalf of the Klingon language, which is under fire as part of the lawsuit Paramount Pictures Corp. v. Axanar Productions Inc.

The brief, liberally sprinkled with the language spoken by characters like Commander Worf (actor Michael Dorn) from the long-running hit TV and movie franchise, Star Trek, essentially argues that no one can copyright a language, even one that has been entirely artificially created.

In their continuing mission to explore strange new worlds and protect their copyrights, CBS and Paramount sued Alec Peters and his crowdfunded production Axanar late last year in a Los Angeles federal court. The studios seek damages for direct, contributory and vicarious infringement as well as an injunction to stop production.

Let’s translate what’s going on here–minus the requisite insults, (as described in the video above by a German lecturer on Klingon in a promotion for a video game):

A contested, crowdfunded movie

As discussed in a recent article on this blog, crowdfunding is a hot new way to raise money for a project that could not normally get made through the traditional channels. Individuals who want to support the project can donate small amounts towards the overall goal. If they reach that goal, the money is released to the creators and they can then use it towards the project. Peters’ crowdfunded project is the movie Axanar, described as “ he story of Garth of Izar, the legendary Starfleet captain who is Captain Kirk’s hero.”

But CBS claims in part that the Axanar production infringes on Klingon, the studio’s wholly copyrighted language. The amicus brief, replete with Klingon words and idiom, argues three key points:

  • Fans of the show have spread the language far beyond its confinement to a singular piece of film or television. They have turned Klingon into a living, breathing language. It is used for everything from Shakespeare translations, to weddings, and even in official Welsh governmental documents.
  • A language cannot be copyrighted because it is an idea. Languages not only cannot be protected under statute, but, under the merger doctrine, Klingon defies the “idea-expression dichotomy,” the say. It cannot be protected “lest one author own the idea itself.”
  • A language cannot be owned at all. It represents a system of linguistic expression. If courts allow it to be protected, that would throttle creativity and expression, contrary to the copyright act’s constitutional mandate.

These arguments, as that noteworthy galactic intellect Spock, a Vulcan, would observe, are fascinating.

If it is true that Klingon has mutated beyond being just a cool part of the Star Trek movie series and become a living language, then would protecting it encourage genericide — can a creative work with valid legal protection move into public ownership just by its popularity and widespread use?

It’s also intriguing that, legally speaking, recognition might be extended to the idea that language exists as a process or useful item. As computing software becomes a more pervasive part of daily living, for example, will the law see language as a set of tools to construct a work, rather than just  words themselves being the work?

Lawyers at word play

As for the Klingon-referring brief, it is one in a long line in which lawyers get creative with language and legal forms. Maybe they’re having too much fun? Consider:

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit recently denied a request for a panel rehearing in the form of a hypothetical conversation between the judges. This was the appellate bench’s response to appellant’s brief, submitted as a hypothetical conversation between an attorney and his client.

Meanwhile, U.S. Judge A. Jay Cristol, in the bankruptcy court in Miami, wrote an opinion as an ode to Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven, starting with the line “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary/Over many quaint and curious files of chapter seven lore.” (haven’t we all).

Finally, a legendary example of a officers of the court enjoying legal word play came from Justice George Smith, the longest serving member of the Arkansas Supreme Court. He published not one but two April Fool’s opinions, in which he abrogated all of Arkansas’ statutory law, and, in the second, was mistakenly cited by another court, about two brothers who received inconsistent jury verdicts for identical criminal acts.

Give credit, though, to the Randazza writers for penning lines like:  “Everyone who translates something into Klingon or writes a poem in Klingon, everyone who gives a speech or presentation at a KLI meeting or Star Trek convention in Klingon, anyone who gives lessons on how to speak Klingon, is a copyright infringer. not Qam ghu’vam, loD!” That, to the uninformed, translates as a Big Lebowski reference in Klingon.