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Who Owns the Klingon Language? The People Vs. Paramount

Who Owns the Klingon Language? The People Vs. Paramount

Even the most casual of geeks have heard of Klingons and know they’re a race from the Star Trek universe. When 7-Eleven clerks in Colorado were being robbed, threatened with a Klingon Bat’leth, they were able to recognize the ubiquitous sword and describe it as from “the Star Trek TV series” to police.

It is undeniable that the Klingons of Star Trek are a part of that universe, but what of the language that characters hailing from Qo’noS speak? The Klingon language, also referring to itself as tlhIngan Hol or the “battle language,” was listed by Paramount & CBS in their lawsuit against the fan-funded film Anaxar (Paramount/CBS v. Axanar Productions et al.) that the use of the Klingon language was part of the film’s infringement of their ownership of the Star Trek intellectual property.

Here’s where things get sticky: a living language cannot be owned.

Given that the lawsuit is in the process of being dropped (thanks to both J.J. Abrams and Justin Lin) the question of the legal ownership of the Klingon language is still unanswered. Do CBS and Paramount own a language they commissioned to create?

An intervener on the Paramount & CBS lawsuit, the Language Creation Society, submitted a brief to the court earlier this month, describing: “Plaintiff Paramount Pictures Corporation (‘Paramount’) has  claimed this copyright interest for many years, but has not actually asserted it in court before now – most likely because the notion of it is meqHutlh (beyond reason).” They go on to assert, “It is not that they were Dogh (pathetic) or nguq (arrogant) when it comes to intellectual property rights. It would not take a Vulcan to explain their logic – even the Pakleds would know that nobody can ‘own’ a language.*

2016-05-24 21_13_08-Language Creation Society Amicus Brief, Paramount v. Axanar

The derogatory Klingonese insults aside, the Language Creation Society is quite clear in their brief: copyright law does not protect spoken langauges.

Paramount and CBS, undoubtedly believe differently, given that Paramount hired Marc Okrand to create Klingonese for Star Trek, though  James Doohan had written the Klingon lines in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (though Okrand came into Trek into the production of Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan). The earliest form of Klingon was insufficient for a conversation, with only some 3000 vocabulary words developed. Okrand later authored The Klingon Dictionary in 1987 and two more follow up books, The Klingon Way and Klingon for the Galactic Traveler, all of which helped establish the language as a full constructed language, with its own vocabulary, grammatical structure, and phonetic inventory specific to it. Okrand once described the language as using elements of human language, but also deliberately making grammatical and phonetic decisions for the language based on aberrations of human languages in order to make it seem most non-human.

Moreover, in their brief, the Language Creation Society expresses that the language has developed a common usage, with many people possessing conversational fluency in it as well as literacy in it. They assert that there are groups of friends whose only common language is Klingonese and that fans of both Star Trek as well as constructed languages have grown the usage of the language.


One Klingon language fan exclusively spoke Klingon to his son for the first 3 years of his life, raising the first native-Klingon speaker; Australian cave tours were offered in Klingon, classic works such as Gilgamesh (ghIlghameS: A Klingon Translation), Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing have been translated and published in Klingon; and the first play entirely in Klingon, A Klingon Christmas Carol has seen the stage in Chicago. Okrand himself, the linguist behind the Klingon language, wrote the libretto for ‘u’, a Klingon opera.

We’re guilty of using Klingon ourselves, having included the Klingonese petaQ as one of our favourite geeky expletives, especially useful in traffic situations.

The implications of the Paramount and CBS’s legal claim are left unknown at this point, whether it’s for fan films or works created in the language of Klingon. One can only assume that as long as J.J. and Justin have a say, they may leave fan works as they traditionally have: something that fans can use to express their love of a language and a universe that speaks uniquely to them.

What do you think? Does Klingon belong to Paramount/CBS or humanity? What’s your favourite fictional language? Let us know in the comments below!

*Author’s note: the brief uses native Klingonese characters, which were the transliterated into Latin characters and translated into English (in parentheses) by the writer. The brief itself is quite a brilliant read for both the Star Trek geek and the legal geek.

Featured Image Credit: Commedia Beauregard – A Klingon Christmas Carol (Fair Use)

Image Credit: Clipping from Language Creation Society Court Brief (Fair Use), Pocket Books/Star Trek – The Klingon Hamlet (Fair Use)

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