Judge Should Throw Book At Klingon Language Disruptors

By January 4, 2017

The following is an opinion piece involving what the writer says should not be a part of a lawsuit involving a Star Trek fan-film. If you’d rather just read the news about this, check out our earlier story.

There would be no one more hypocritical than me if I sat here and told you milking something for publicity is bad.

I mean, it’s been nearly eight years now since I sold the SyFy brand I created to NBCUniversal, and eight years later, I milk that for everything I can get. Including a commentary where I complain about milking news events for publicity.

But enough about milk. For the past year, CBS Studios and Paramount Pictures have been battling with “independent” Star Trek fan-film producers Axanar Productions and Alec Peters in a copyright infringement lawsuit that already has changed the face of fan-films online.

It hasn’t been the cleanest battle, that’s for sure. It’s probably the only reason why the few people who are following that particular court case are actually paying attention.

For the many who are much more casual observers, however, you might think the lawsuit is not about raising $1.4 million to produce a fan-film that never happened, but instead about whether or not the Klingon language itself can be copyrighted. That wouldn’t be your fault, because some non-profit language group out of California has now done everything it can to only confuse anyone interested in how this case works out.

Last spring, the Language Creation Society asked to file what is known as a “friend of the court” brief. It was actually a cleverly written brief, utilizing a number of Klingon phrases and such with a touch of warrior humor, all to draw attention to the society’s claim that even a fictional language like Klingon shouldn’t be copyrighted.

To be honest, I am not sure what side of that debate I sit on. I mean, Klingon is a complete language, which is kind of cool, and it seems only right that it should belong to the people. But then again, there are no native speakers, it wasn’t created the same way most of the other languages the world speaks came about, and instead was created by Marc Okrand for Star Trek III: The Search For Spock in the 1980s.

Okrand was not some random linguist who developed the Klingon language. Instead, he did it while under contract with Paramount, technically making Okrand’s creation a “work-for-hire.” Because of that, courts have typically deemed “work-for-hire” creations as owned by the organization doing the paying, not the person doing the creating.

It’s like what you’re reading here. I created this, all on my own, using words that reflect my sole opinions. But I work for GeekNation, who pay me to create stories and commentaries such as this one. And while these are my words, I actually don’t own them – GeekNation does.

But I actually digress. As fun as it would be for legal nerds like me to debate the copyrightability of the Klingon language, there is one major problem – whether you can copyright Klingon or not has absolutely nothing to do with the Axanar case.

Zilch. Or as they would say on Qo’noS: pagh.

The society put out a funny brief several months ago, and got some tremendous attention for their cause. That’s great. But instead of resting on their laurels, to use an old cliche, the society has once again tried to insert itself into the Axanar case, and waited until the federal judge in the case was deciding whether or not to grant summary judgment to either side.

Paramount and CBS were so incensed by this move, they responded by asking the judge to not only toss the society’s friend of the court brief, but to also sanction the group and force them to pay the studios’ court costs for having to even deal with it.

The judge has yet to rule on that motion, but the language society wasted no time in filing a follow-up brief. This new brief is much like the one from last year, written like the clueless lawyer was some kind of Klingon, mixing in words from the language. I can only guess the society’s lawyer hoped we would forget they already did this parlor trick last year, and everyone will cover it again.

Yet, we haven’t forgotten. And this new brief is rather nasty toward the studios – despite the society’s claim they aren’t taking sides in the lawsuit itself. They even call the attorneys for Paramount and CBS “cowards” (in Klingon) for opposing their inclusion in the lawsuit.

But the studios are not cowards. Instead, they are absolutely right, and the language society’s lawyer knows that.

The Klingon language only came up in the lawsuit to help demonstrate that the Klingons proposed for Star Trek: Axanar were the same Klingons Paramount and CBS own.

Part of what makes them Klingons is not just their warrior tendencies and their ridged foreheads – but also the fact they speak the language.

Nowhere in this case will the judge ever have to address whether the Klingon language is copyrighted or not. Paramount and CBS are not even suing over that. Axanar is not even counter-suing over that. It won’t come up, and I guarantee you there will be absolutely no final ruling that will declare the Klingon language copyrighted, or part of the public domain.

I know, I know, I’m too worked up about this silly thing. Let the language society have some publicity.

They can have all the publicity they want. But they should do it with a press release, or by doing a news interview with someone. Not wasting the time of the court, less than a month before a trial is supposed to start, with some transparent attempt to get some press attention.

The judge should indeed impose sanctions against this society for that very reason. And they should indeed pay CBS and Paramount for the time they had to spend in responding to this frivolous action.

The court is tasked with deciding whether a fan-film went too far in its plans to not only produce a fan-film, but create a reportedly commercial studio outside Los Angeles, and selling products CBS and Paramount say are copies of their own intellectual property. The Klingon language, outside of being something the Klingon characters speak – thus helping to define them – has nothing to do with it.

Courts aren’t a way to get cheap publicity. They are a means to help determine if someone has been wronged, and if so, how it can be fixed. Let’s stop bogging down the courts with our own selfish pursuits, and instead let them do their job.

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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.