This is the 18th entry in an ongoing series about Star Trek fandom and its future called Crisis of Infinite Star Treks. Since “18” seems a good “age of ascension,” Worf would probably approve of this being more about Klingon.
For those wondering from my post last week, I did go down the rabbit hole of fan news, commentary, and the stew of social media regarding the Axanar lawsuit… and the full report of that sobering experience will be coming out later this week. Hopefully before an expected Star Trek Beyond trailer, so I can just enjoy that.
In the meantime, let’s return to the Klingon language.
Mike Masnick at TechDirt does a good job summarizing some of the legal moves in the Axanar lawsuit in terms of how it relates to copyrighting the Klingon language.
The one thing I would say is that I do find it a serious topic, because if a court rules that Klingon can be copyrighted, it sets a disturbing precedent for corporations’ ability to own a language itself. And speaking of ownership, when something has been open source and developed for decades, but suddenly can be protected via copyright, what does that mean for open source? (I elaborate on that hypothetical here).
Now interestingly, since I’ve been digging deeper into the coverage of the Axanar lawsuit, that topic has come up. Many observers who have been looking into the Axanar case far closer than I argue that the Klingon language is not open source and is still entirely owned by CBS/Paramount despite the existence of the Klingon Language Institute, stage plays in Klingon, continued development in Klingon and so on. Their point is that these can all be deemed derivative works and CBS/Paramount has allowed them to exist because they have been done, by and large, as non-commercial endeavors.
So let me put this back into my hypothetical scenario of the General Dynamics invented language (GDIL). The argument here is that General Dynamics never released control of its language. A group of engineers found the language to be really useful and fun to expand upon and wanted to create their own training videos using the language for building wells in developing nations or whatnot. General Dynamics said, “sure, here’s a license to do that good work for non-commercial ends.” And so the GDIL Institute was born, a proper non-profit corporation obeying the laws of Pennsylvania officially licensed by General Dynamics to work on GDIL.
The original “father of GDIL” –the linguist who formally constructed the language and its rules– would continue to help the GDIL Institute to expand the language because the language originally was not too much about building wells and irrigation, and so GDIL developed. However, at all times, GDIL was developed as licensed by General Dynamics for non-commercial use. If at some point in the future, the leaders of the GDIL Institute behaved like schmucks or were trying to monetize GDIL in a way that General Dynamics disapproved of, that license would be revoked. Everything the GDIL Institute did was a derivative work allowed by General Dynamics.
That’s the argument as I understand it and it does make sense. It may even be legal. The point that I still get stuck on, and I think this is because of my studies in linguistics, is that I firmly believe that a true language cannot be proprietary by its very nature.
A language is not simply a story. It is not simply song lyrics. It is not even an information delivery mechanism like some computer code might be deemed to be. A fully realized language is a framework not only giving one the ability to communicate, but to think and ponder about the world around them. That’s why it’s so important to preserve so many of the thousands of human languages we have because they preserve ways of thinking. That’s why invented languages are so interesting and worth study and development.
Sure, you can and courts will make rulings on the use of language (e.g. the whole ‘crying fire in a theater’ thing), but it’s an entirely other matter to say someone can own a language. Languages are different.
There may be no legal precedence for this assertion, just as fans aren’t legally granted an automatic right to make fan films even though the capability is there.
I guess we’ll see. Even though it’s gone in this case (for now), I’m thinking it will come up again soon.
Update (2016-05-18, later in the PM):
I also put this update in the Corbomite post from last week, but Janet Gershen-Siegel has an entertaining and exhaustive article that goes over a lot of the legal specifics including speaking to the amicus brief about Klingon. For now, all this is academic.