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Is Klingon A Living Language? That's For (Human) Courts To Decide

Star Trek fans dress as Klingons during the Destination Star Trek event at ExCel on Oct. 3, 2014, in London.
Ben A. Pruchnie
Getty Images
Star Trek fans dress as Klingons during the Destination Star Trek event at ExCel on Oct. 3, 2014, in London.

A new lawsuit is boldly going where no man has gone before.

Paramount Pictures and CBS are suing the producers of a Star Trek fan film for copyright infringement. The studios own the copyright to the Star Trek franchise, including six television shows and 12 movies.

They're suing Axanar Productions along with executive producer Alec Peters over their 2014 short film Prelude to Axanar, and the planned full-length Axanar. Peters raised more than $101,000 on Kickstarter to make the first film, and Axanar Productions says they've raised more than $1 million in total.

The movies are set in the Star Trek universe and serve as a prequel to the original series from the 1960s. Axanar takes place 21 years before Captain Kirk came on the scene and tells the story of Garth of Izar, "the legendary Starfleet captain who is Captain Kirk's hero." For the true Trekkies, here are more details from the filmmakers:

"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."

Fan films exist in a legal gray area. There have been several fan productions of Star Trek shows over the years. According to Wired, Paramount "has traditionally allowed these fan-made projects to move forward, as long as they agree not to sell anything — including tickets, merchandise, or copies of the finished film or series."

But in December 2015, the studios filed a complaint against Axanar. In a follow-up brief, they identify "infringing elements," including original Star Trek characters, races and species (like Klingons and Vulcans), uniforms, planets, the Starship Enterprise (which is of course the NCC-1701), logos — and the Klingon language.

The way the court decides on the last item on that list has big legal implications. The Language Creation Society filed an amicus brief in support of the filmmakers. It argues that since Klingon was invented in the 1980s, the language has expanded beyond its origins — there's even a Klingon Language Institute. They say there's enough vocabulary in the language to translate Shakespeare's Hamlet. Klingon "took on a life of its own — a life that the Copyright Act has no power to control," they say.

The studios say they own the "fictional language."

The reason this matters — whether you can copyright a language — is related to programming. Is computer code a language, and can you copyright it? It goes to a long-running case between Oracle and Google. The Hollywood Reporter summarizes: "In a nutshell, Oracle looks to protect its Java API code from Google's attempt to use some of it for its Android software. A federal appeals court ruled in May 2014 that one could indeed copyright an API, leading to a collective freak-out by many in the tech industry." Charles Duan at Slate explains that "computer networking technology depends on languages, like the Wi-Fi protocol, so that multiple computers can communicate and understand one another." If languages can be copyrighted, it would stifle innovation and create monopolies, he argues.

The Supreme Court didn't take up the case.

Meanwhile, a court date in the case involving Paramount, CBS and Axanar is set for May 2017. The filmmakers picked up some big endorsements, though. Justin Lin, director of the upcoming — authorized — Star Trek: Beyond, tweeted his support:

And Marc Okrand, who created Klingon in 1984, and published the first Klingon dictionary in 1985, agrees. "Languages are something that you should use and you should feel free to use them and be encouraged to use them," he tells NPR's Michel Martin. "And not worry about someone standing over your shoulder saying: yes, you can say that; no, you can't; yes, you can use that language; no, you can't. Of course you can, and you should."

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Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.