Home » Copyright/Intellectual Property » ‘Star Trek’ Lawsuit: The Debate Over Klingon Language Heats Up

‘Star Trek’ Lawsuit: The Debate Over Klingon Language Heats Up

29 April 2016

From The Hollywood Reporter:

When Paramount and CBS ended last year with a lawsuit over a crowdfunded Star Trek fan film titled Axanar, the two studios probably had no idea that they were about to get mired in an esoteric legal debate about the protectability of the Klingon language. But that’s exactly what’s happened, and with the language of digital coding hanging in the background, a California federal judge’s forthcoming decision could hold significance — so large, in fact, that this otherwise run-of-the-mill copyright action has now drawn an amicus brief from a language society that quotes a Klingon proverb translated as “we succeed together in a greater whole.”

To review, after the Star Trek rights holders filed their complaint, the defendant production company demanded particulars of the franchise’s copyrighted elements. In response, Paramount and CBS listed a lot, but what drew most attention was claimed entitlement to the Klingon language. The defendant then reached back to a 19th century Supreme Court opinion for the proposition that Klingon is not copyrightable as a useful system.

On April 11, that drew an entertaining response from the flummoxed plaintiffs.

“This argument is absurd since a language is only useful if it can be used to communicate with people, and there are no Klingons with whom to communicate,” stated a plaintiffs’ brief authored by David Grossman at Loeb & Loeb. “The Klingon language is wholly fictitious, original and copyrightable, and Defendants’ incorporation of that language in their works will be part of the Court’s eventual substantial similarity analysis. Defendants’ use of the Klingon language in their works is simply further evidence of their infringement of Plaintiffs’ characters, since speaking this fictitious language is an aspect of their characters.”

Before U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner gets a chance to rule on a motion to dismiss, he’s now being asked permission to review a friend-of-the-court brief from the Language Creation Society.

The brief, authored by Marc Randazza, begins with background that the Klingon language was invented in 1984 by Marc Okrand for Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.

“Before that, when actors played Klingons in Star Trek television programs or movies, they simply uttered guttural sounds or spoke in English (Federation Standard),” writes Randazza. “Given that Paramount Pictures commissioned the creation of some of the language, it is understandable that Paramount might feel some sense of ownership over the creation. But, feeling ownership and having ownership are not the same thing. 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.”

. . . .

Now, with 250,000 copies of a Klingon dictionary said to have been sold, Klingon language certification programs being offered, the Microsoft search engine Bing presenting English-to-Klingon translations, one Swedish couple performing their marriage vows in Klingon, foreign governments providing official statements in Klingon and so on, the Language Creation Society is holding up Klingon as having freed the “bounds of its textual chains.”

Ultimately, the amicus brief comes back to the theory that Klingon is not copyrightable.

“What is a language other than a procedure, process, or system for communication?” asks the society. “What is a language’s vocabulary but a collection of words? The vocabulary and grammar rules of a language provide instructions for a speaker to articulate thoughts and ideas. One cannot disregard grammatical rules and still be intelligible, and creating one’s own vocabulary only worked well for the Bard. Vocabulary and grammar are no more protectable than the bookkeeping system in Baker v. Selden, 101 U.S. 99, 101 (1879).”

Link to the rest at The Hollywood Reporter and thanks to Antares for the tip.

Parts of the amicus brief are written in Klingon.

Copyright/Intellectual Property

30 Comments to “‘Star Trek’ Lawsuit: The Debate Over Klingon Language Heats Up”

  1. Pagh qama’! CBS and Paramount can suck it.

  2. The judge should rule that the Society owns the copyright. What a brouhaha that will cause! Klingon has taken on its own life. Just last year my early music group, Court and Country, sang a Klingon translation of a renaissance English-and-Latin drinking song. The assembled Klingon Assault Group at the con loved it.

    And Mr. Randazza has my total respect as an attorney, not that I know many. He was the guy who defended Dear Author in the Ellora’s Cave SLAPP suit. I foresee his successful defense of open rights to the noble Klingon language.

  3. It’s always fun to watch the 900 pound gorilla reach too far over for a banana he doesn’t need but doesn’t want anyone else having and fall flat on his face. May this be the first of many little slips that brings them down …

  4. Anyone ever wonder… why was it Klingon? And not Romulan, or Vulcan, or Andorian…

    It fascinates me (lol, Spock) that the culture that people fixated on enough to create a language (with useful metaphors and cultural signifiers) that became its Own Thing outside the show was Klingon. It’s not the first race I think of when I think Star Trek, but I guess I’m in a minority there…!

    • Probably because Vulcans wouldn’t even think about translating, much dancing to, K-pop. 😀


    • As the series has evolved, the latter day Klingons have become the STAR TREK universe’s answer to the ancient spartans of myth: honorable warriors of absolute integrity. In a world where honor and integrity are on the verge of extinction in the public spheres the Klingon ethos resonates with many.

      (That, plus the ladies like Worf more than Spock. Which is saying something right there.)

      • Not this lady. Spock is and always shall be #1, but Worf does have a certain something…

        I was watching an old episode of Frasier this morning during breakfast (have it on DVD) where he honors his son at his bar mitzvah with a little speech Frasier thinks is in Hebrew, but is really in Klingon (courtesy of his Trekker colleague Noel). Had to stop eating so I didn’t choke while laughing so hard I cried–again.

      • Quotes Voltaire’s Worf’s Revenge – “My head ain’t the only part of me that’s got ridges.”

      • As I recall there were dishonorable Klingons. Perhaps, though, if enough people communicate in the Klingon language, it will inspire them to behave with honor and integrity, which will encourage non-Klingon speakers to behave that way.

        • Sure.
          Most ended up gutted by Worf’s Bat’leth. 😉
          Worf = the Klingon’s Klingon.

          (Cowardly spartans didn’t last long either. Fragging has a very looonnngg history.)

    • Apropos of nothing, when I was in Atlanta, I crossed paths at a comic shop with a gent who was a professional Klingon. As in, he got paid to dress in costume and attend parties, weddings, business meetings (!) and that sort of thing. Yes, he was a gentleman of impressive stature with a great sense of humor.

  5. If “used for communication” is the legal standard for a non-copyrightable language, where does this put Esperanto? Also a purely synthetic language, but one that is spoken (and, to maintain my geek credentials, spoken by Mr. William Shatner!) Is Esperanto under copyright?

    • I don’t know about the copyright, Sabrina, but amongst the songs my group sings is “The Green Hills of Earth” with a verse in Esperanto.

      How does one go about copyrighting (or trademarking) a language? Would one not have to show s/he invented the grammar, the pronunciation, the syntax? Plus every single individual word?

      • Klingon and Esperanto songs! It sounds like you’re in a cool singing group, Deb.

        • Indeed, I find them cool in all sorts of ways. We sing in seven languages, including the medieval forms of modern tongues. It’s fascinating to learn from these folks who are much better informed about early music than I am.

  6. I agree with the Society 100% (languages are generally communication systems so the proper protection for the system would be a patent, not copyright) but they overstate: plenty of authors have succeeded in creating new vocabulary and enriching the language for the rest of us.

    For that matter, Klingon is not the only fictional language to gain life in the outside world. Game of Thrones’ Dothraki is but one of many including one from a dude named Tolkien.


  7. Anthony Burgess teenage droogs speak Nadsat, a fictional language, in Burgess’ novel A Clockwork Orange, and the novel is protected by copyright. Presumably, so is Nadsat.

  8. I’ve been learning Italian with the free duoLingo app, as I (im)patiently wait for their promised Klingon module. (“Estimated launch: 8/1/16”).

  9. I read (several years ago) that there are more speakers of Klingon than Navajo!

  10. You should read the brief. I’m not a lawyer, but still found it hysterical to read. It even includes a Sesame Street example.


  11. Kreegah!

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