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When does a fictional language become public property?

Earlier this year, Paramount and CBS were embroiled in a legal battle with the creators of ‘Axanar’, an unauthorized, fan made film which takes place within the Star Trek universe. As a part of the lawsuit, the companies submitted a document to the federal court detailing all the ways in which they felt their intellectual property was being infringed upon. One of those ways was, they alleged, through the film makers use of the Klingon language.

However attorney Marc Randazza has argued that “The language has taken on a life of its own,” and that the “thousands” of fans and speakers have made Klingon into “an actual living language.” So the question that this lawsuit raises is when does a language stop belonging just to the creator, and start belonging to the speakers?

What’s the difference between Klingon and other languages?

The biggest difference between Klingon and other spoken languages is the fact that Klingon’s origins are rooted in fiction. However, the most important difference between Klingon and other, naturally occurring languages (with regards to this case) is the fact that the origins of Klingon can be traced back to a single, living person; Mark Okrand.

Therefore we know who to credit with its origination and that it was not the result of 100s or even 1000s of years of evolution over time, as is the case with most other modern languages. (Or at least the ones which did not get their start in a fictional universe.) This in turn supports the fact that yes, Klingon is intellectual property.

However it was not Mark Okrand who chose to sue the makers of this fan film—it was Paramount and CBS. While it was Paramount who hired Okrand to invent the language in the first place, that was the extent of their involvement in the creative process.

Can a fictional language ever gain enough momentum to become public property?

To many people, the Klingon language is a very important part of life. While it’s impossible to tell exactly how many fluent Klingon speakers there are in the world, there have been (among other things) Klingon wedding ceremonies, a Klingon opera and a Klingon translation of ‘Hamlet’.

There’s even such a thing as a Klingon Language Institute, which “exists to facilitate the scholarly exploration of the Klingon language and culture.” Even Mark Okrand has said that he’s encountered speakers who are more fluent in Klingon than himself.

The question of whether or not Klingon belongs to the people is a fascinating one to say the least. As the United States operates under a common law court system, the results of a such a lawsuit would likely have set precedence in similar cases for years to come; potentially changing the way fan fiction would be produced in the future.

But after Justin Lin and J.J. Abrams, both directors of recent Star Trek films, came out publicly in support of ‘Axanar’, Paramount and CBS decided to drop the lawsuit. So the issue of the Klingon language’s lawful ownership is still officially unknown.

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