In my almost three years at Public Knowledge, I have never been so delighted as this morning when I saw an amicus curiae brief in the lawsuit over copyright in the constructed language Klingon – which opens by quoting a Klingon proverb, in Klingon script.
Copyright in languages is something that has fascinated and troubled me for a long time. Most of my focus has been on computer languages, specifically the Oracle v. Google case that dealt with copyright in certain Java programming language commands. And in making the case against a federal court’s decision favoring copyright there, I somewhat infamously proposed that the errors in the Oracle decision could open the door to copyright infringement for speaking Klingon.
Only a few months later, the Star Trek proprietors actually did claim copyright infringement for speaking Klingon, in their continuing attempt to shut down the in-production fan movie Star Trek: Axanar.
Saying that the owners of Star Trek’s copyrights (here, Paramount and CBS) have the power to prevent speaking of any Klingon words – that’s a bold step, because it’s not only this one movie where Klingon is spoken. That’s where the amicus brief, filed by the Language Creation Society, comes in. The point of amicus briefs is to educate judges about the broader implications of a case, beyond the parties actually suing each other, and that’s exactly what this brief does.
Describing the wide “living community of Klingon speakers,” the brief identifies enormous numbers of Klingon speakers, researchers, Shakespearean thespians, television actors – you name it. And they did not just receive the Klingon language, but built it up and augmented its vocabulary. As the brief explains, “Klingon has spread throughout the world, and its students have surpassed its creator in linguistic fluency.”
That sort of creativity, that generativity, that innovation – that is what is at stake when a court decides whether a language should be the sole copyright domain of its first creator, whether that language be computer, human, or alien. Copyright law has long refused protection to “systems” and “methods of operation.” As the Supreme Court explained over a century ago in the case Baker v. Selden, it would be “a surprise and a fraud upon the public” to give copyright power over a procedure of operation (in that case, a bookkeeping method), because “the rules and methods of useful art have their final end in application and use,” an end that would be wholly frustrated by copyright exclusivity.
In other words, there would be great danger to allowing the copyright power to extend to prevent others from speaking a language. As the brief explains: If Paramount were able to claim the exclusive right to use or license the use of this language, an entire body of thought would be extinguished. Hoch jaghpu’Daj HoHbogh SuvwI’ yIvup” – pity the warrior that kills all his enemies.
Perhaps most enjoyable in the brief was the sharp takedown of Paramount’s bizarre argument that Klingon copyright is not concerning because “a language is only useful if it can be used to communicate with people, and there are no Klingons with whom to communicate.” Unsurprisingly, the brief retorts that (1) there are plenty of Klingon speakers with whom Klingon may be fluently communicated, and (2) there are plenty of dead languages, like ancient Greek, that are undoubtedly still useful. The fact that Paramount is even making this argument goes to show how narrow-minded its view of the Klingon language is – all but totally ignoring the fact that a vibrant community has constructed itself around this constructed language.
“qaStaHvIS wa' ram loSSaD Hugh SIjlaH qetbogh loD” – four thousand throats may be cut in one night by a running man. That proverb, which aired first in 1968, is strangely prescient of the copyright claim over Klingon today. For Paramount’s lawsuit against Axanar has the potential not merely to cut off the voice of one movie, but to silence thousands of speakers, scholars, performers, and fans of Star Trek and its fantastic universe.
Image credit: Flickr user GrooverFW