06:20 GMT +326 March 2017
    A man dressed as Mr. Spock from the television show Star Trek attends the first day of Comic Con International in San Diego, California, July 9, 2015.

    Where No Lawsuit Has Gone Before: Can Star Trek's Klingon Be Copyrighted?

    © AFP 2017/ Robyn Beck
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    A legal controversy over a fictional alien language is spiraling into a debate about linguistics and computer coding in the US.

    The two studios that own the rights to legendary TV space opera Star Trek — Paramount Pictures and CBS — are suing the creators of a short Star Trek fan movie for copyright infringement.

    Indie producers Axanar production and Alec Peters released their first Star Trek-inspired short in 2014, and have so far raised over US$100,000 to crowdfund their next, feature-length movie, "Axanar."

    Both films are intended as prequels to the Star Trek's original storyline.

    "Axanar tells the story of Garth and his crew during the Four Years War, the war with the Klingon Empire that almost tore the Federation apart. Garth's victory at Axanar solidified the Federation and allowed it to become the entity we know in Kirk's time," Axanar's website explains.

    As such, the movies feature many of the elements of the series, to which the studios took offense. The complaint filed in December 2015, in particular, requests stopping the production due to the presence of several "infringing elements," which include Star Trek's characters, planets, alien races, and even its iconic Klingon language.

    The presence of Klingon in the lawsuit, among other things, is of particular importance.

    The fictional language — spoken by the grouchy, bellicose extraterrestrial 'Klingons' — was created from scratch for the series by American linguist Mark Okrand. Over time it has grown into an extremely coherent tongue — there is even an opera written and sung in Klingon.

    According to the Language Creation Society, which has published an amicus brief to assist Axanar:

    "The language has taken on a life of its own. Thousands of people began studying it, building upon it, and using it to communicate among themselves."

    The question is whether- as Paramount and CBS in fact think — a language, however fictional, can be copyrighted and owned; and whether people can be prevented from speaking it.

    And this is not only an intellectual linguistics dilemma. There is in fact a raging debate in the tech communities on whether programing languages — like Java, Python, Ruby and so on — can be copyrighted after being invented.

    If it were so, all hell would break loose in the programing world, which is founded on the principle of free exchange and sharing on different languages.

    The question is still controversial however — the EU Court of Justice ruled against copyrighting programing languages in 2012, while a US federal court ruled in favor of the computer company Oracle in a recent coding copyright case against Google.

    The final answer, anyway, will not come until the case pitting Paramount and CBS against Axanar starts in May 2017.


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    copyright infringement, science fiction, copyright, TV series, Star Trek, programming, language, lawsuit, United States
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    • Angus Gallagher
      The STAR TREK franchise has a policy of allowing fan made series to draw from the canon of the shows with the caveat that this ought not to be done for profit. Where that has been observed, real fans have not only made first rate trailers and shows- they have added to the canon itself.
      In this case, there is a money making incentive and as the people doing this haven't invested a single dime in the millions the franchise has spent on marketing, there's no reason they should be able to reap the rewards. It's not a linguistic issue of course, it's a matter of franchise copyright infringement and the Klingon language is in the same copyrighted treasure trove of items owned by the franchise as Klingon uniforms, ceremonial knives, battle kit, toy Klingon war birds, the Imperial Klingon flag etc etc etc. It's hard to understand why this has been represented as a linguistic issue: if the writers want to make up a gibberish language they can- but they mustn't use phrase like "Ka'plach" or any other word of phrase from the canon. They must also refrain from ever calling it Klingon- or portraying Klingons.
    • avatar
      yehedgehogin reply toAngus Gallagher(Show commentHide comment)
      Angus Gallagher, You have brought up an interesting point, the similarity of phrases, eg; Klingon and its similarity to cling-on. Klingon in the Star Trek universe is a race or language, pronounced exactly the same as cling-on, but spelled differently. I heard the phrase cling-on for the first time when I was a pre-teen boy. I am now 74, perhaps Star Trek or whomever should be sued for usurping the phrase cling-on, or does the changing of a c to a K and the presence of a hyphen make Klingon unique? Cling-on refers to the tiny balls of excrement that cling-on the hairs around one's rectum after having defecated. :)
    • avatar
      The legal issue here is really one of defining and thus defending just where the line dividing private domain rights intellectual rights (copyrights and trademarks) ends and the rights of the public domain to use derivatives of those ideas begin.

      When the corporate owners of intellectual rights don't legally challenge 'abusers' of those rights EVERYWHERE those asserted abuses occur, then those rights are surrendered and they pass into the public domain.

      I think it's the time factor that works against corporate greed in this case.

      For example, allowing not-for-profit use but not taken vigorous rights-defense action against profiteers who have been marketing and selling unlicensed "Star Wars" related clothing, for example, reduces the intellectual property rights line. The 'rights' line withdraws and those once-protected 'rights' enter into the public domain.

      Once surrendered through inaction to defend, intellectual property rights' can not be regained.
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