Even if you’re not a Trekkie, you’ve got to feel for the Klingons of Earth. Their language is under threat of being taken back by the very company that commissioned its creation, raising the very important question: Can a language even be copyrighted?
News that Paramount is suing the creators of a Star Trek fan film for copyright infringement quickly spread across the galaxy last week. More traditional copyright issues such as the likenesses of characters came into play, but the company also said it owned the Klingon language, a claim that could have far-reaching implications.
When I first heard about the lawsuit, I kind of rolled my eyes. I’m not a Trekkie, how could this possibly matter? It quickly became clear that if companies can copyright languages, they can copyright the means of creating culture. Paramount invented the language, but should it own Klingon translations of Hamlet? Should it own a novel completely unrelated to Star Trek that a passionate Klingon writes? Could it require licenses for people to recite their wedding vows in Klingon?
What about other constructed languages like Dothraki from Game of Thrones? And what about software and programming languages?
And so I decided to look at the issue from a few different angles. I called up Sai, founder of the Language Creation Society, to talk about why his organization is defending the Klingons. I called up qurgh lungqIj, a Klingon from the distant planet of Cincinnati, to talk about the rich Klingon culture that has evolved since it was first invented for the Star Trek movies. And then I called up Motherboard contributing editor and copyright expert Sarah Jeong to talk about whether the Klingons stand a chance.