Axanar Judge Closes Book On Klingon Language Debate

By January 6, 2017

A federal judge trying a copyright infringement case against a so-called “independent” Star Trek fan-film made quick work of one group’s attempt to push the Klingon language into the public domain, saying once again that copyright issue isn’t part of this particular case.

R. Gary Klausner issued his decision against the California-based Language Creation Society Thursday, explaining that his order earlier this week that brought the copyright case against Axanar Productions and its principal Alec Peters to trial, made the entire discussion of whether the Klingon language can be copyrighted a “moot” point.

Even more, the court never addressed the language, and has no plans to, meaning the current legal status of the Klingon language will remain the same for now.

Axanar and Peters, who raised more than $1.4 million to create a feature-length fan-film called Star Trek: Axanar, drew the lawsuit from Star Trek owners CBS Studios and Paramount Pictures Inc. last year. Axanar, among other things, had paid Peters and other managing producers on the project, as well as reportedly opening a commercial studio outside of Los Angeles using crowdfunding donations for the Star Trek project as seed money.

The language group first tried to insert itself into the case last spring when they claimed CBS and Paramount were inappropriately claiming ownership of the Klingon language. The studios rejected that complaint from the group, with observers describing the creation of the language by Marc Okrand as a “work-for-hire” for Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, and thus would be owned by the studios.

On top of that, while the Klingon language was indeed mentioned in the initial lawsuit, its inclusion was provided to help describe the Klingon race, one of several Star Trek races CBS and Paramount say Axanar and Peters intended to copy with their production.

A statement on the Language Creation Society website earlier this week said CBS and Paramount should either concede they don’t own Klingon, or withdraw the claim that they do, since it would be “irrelevant to the case.”

“But if they want to continue claiming they own it, especially if they want to tell that to the jury, they should defend their claim.”

The society said it was preparing a statement following Klausner’s ruling on Thursday, but had still not provided that statement as of early Friday morning. The group said that it wanted to wait until CBS and Paramount responded to a motion from the Axanar defense team that demanded some elements, like the Klingon language, not be included in the trial that’s set for the end of the month.

Klausner has previously rejected Axanar’s claims that CBS and Paramount can’t use non-copyrighted elements to help demonstrate the use of elements that are indeed protected by copyright. For instance, while aspects of Klingons like ridged heads, being a warrior race and speaking Klingon, might not be individually copyrightable – bringing all those elements together to create a Klingon as the finished project is indeed copyrightable.

After the language group tried to file another “friend of the court” brief this past week, lawyers for CBS and Paramount demanded the judge in the case not only reject that brief, but also sanction the Language Creation Society for wasting the court’s time, and pay costs for the attorneys to respond to the filing.

The judge’s order Thursday did not impose any sanctions against the language group, and it’s unclear if he might take action later.

Klausner completely gutted the defense offered by Axanar and Peters in a decision earlier this week that officially moved the matter to trial. Because of that, when the jury hears the case, all it has to do is decide whether what Axanar was producing was “substantially similar” to the Star Trek intellectual property owned by CBS and Paramount.

If the jury rules in favor of the studios, it will then have to decide whether Peters’ actions to infringe copyright was “willful.” That decision could affect how large (or small) damages would be awarded to the studios.

Peters issued a statement following the judge’s ruling on one of Axanar’s subsidiary blogs saying the court’s rejection of a “fair use” defense opens the door to appeal, and assured his donors that his defense attorneys would stick around to fight the case in appeal if necessary.

The jury trial to determine if indeed the Axanar works are substantially similar to Star Trek is scheduled to start Jan. 31.

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Michael Hinman

Michael Hinman

Managing Editor at GeekNation
Michael began what has become nearly 19 years of entertainment reporting as the founder of SyFy Portal, which would become Airlock Alpha after he sold the SyFy brand to NBC Universal. He's based out of New York City where he is the editor of a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper in the Bronx.