Star Trek Lawyers Don’t Want To Rehash Klingon Language Debate

By January 2, 2017

The studios behind the Star Trek franchise are not about to let the Klingon language take over its copyright case against an “independent” fan-film after attorneys over the holiday weekend asked a federal judge to punish a language organization for wasting the court’s time.

The Language Creation Society, a California-based non-profit that promotes the “art, craft and science” of language creation, made news last summer when it challenged what it said was a claim by Paramount Pictures and CBS Studios Inc. to copyright the Klingon language.

The studios had mentioned the language in its copyright infringement lawsuit against Axanar Productions and its principal Alec Peters, who raised $1.4 million from Star Trek fans to produce a feature-length film called Star Trek: Axanar, and to reportedly build a commercial film studio just outside Los Angeles.

In its complaint against Axanar, Paramount and CBS used the Klingon language as one of several attributes that helped define the Klingon characters they say is protected by copyright. However, Paramount nor CBS specifically claimed Klingon itself was copyrighted, nor is the court set to decide whether Klingon is copyrighted, which led to the judge tossing the Language Creation Society’s “friend of the court” brief in the first place.

The group, however, has returned, hoping the court will listen to its reasons why Klingon shouldn’t be copyrighted – and that move has angered the Paramount and CBS attorneys.

“The court has not been asked to determine the independent copyrightability of the Klingon language (or fictitious languages in general) outside of context of Star Trek works. It is the use of the Klingon language in this context that will be before the court, not the copyrightability of languages in general.”

The studios are set to go to trial proving Axanar violated its Star Trek copyright through a common court technique known as a substantial similarity analysis. The jury will look at the different elements that make up a copyrighted work, and try to determine if Axanar took too much from the intellectual property owned by CBS and Paramount.

Many elements that are considered in this analysis aren’t copyrighted, however, and that’s typically by design. For example, the studios will explain a Vulcan by showing an alien with pointed ears, raised eyebrows, operating under the discipline of logic, and called a “Vulcan.” Individual elements like pointed ears or raised eyebrows by themselves cannot be copyrighted, but when included in a whole like what makes up a Vulcan character, that expression of those individual elements can indeed be copyrighted.

It’s similar to the copyright of a song. While no one can copyright an individual note, or an individual word, the expression of those notes and words together that create the song is what’s copyrighted, so those notes can be included.

The Language Creation Society wants to argue that the Klingon language is public domain, despite being created as a “work for hire” by Marc Okrand in the 1980s for Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Typically, anything created in a “work for hire” relationship would give ownership of whatever is created not to the person or people who created it, but the entity that is paying them to create it.

While discussion of whether a language – even a fictitious one – can be copyrighted might be an interesting academic exercise, attorneys for CBS and Paramount maintain it has nothing to do with this particular case. In fact, the studio attorneys want the court to sanction the Language Creation Society for attempting to file the brief again, claiming it’s way too late, it’s way too long, and is just an attempt to complicate an already complicated case.

If a judge agrees with CBS and Paramount that the Language Creation Society filing was frivolous, he could fine the organization, make them responsible for Paramount and CBS legal costs for having to deal with the brief, and any other way the judge might see fit to punish them.

But if a judge agrees to allow the organization to file its brief, the studio attorneys want extra time to respond to the language group – something that could potentially delay the start of the trial, which is set to begin at the end of the month.

Both sides also are still waiting to hear on motions for summary judgment. Paramount and CBS attorneys are hoping the judge will rule that Axanar did indeed violate its copyrights, and that the trial later this month will only be to assess damages. Axanar, on the other hand, are hoping the judge will declare the studios have no case, and throw it out.

That decision could come as early as this week.

h/t Jody Wheeler

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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.
  • John Ikarus

    Get Donald Trump to deport the Klingons to Uranus…sorry about that.