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Can You Copyright Klingon? Linguists Say 'PeDoghQo!'

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

You can get married in Klingon, use Google in Klingon, and even stage Hamlet in Klingon. But can you copyright Klingon? CBS and Paramount seem to think so, and they're suing a fan film that makes use of the language, first invented in 1984 for "Star Trek."

Now, a group of linguists is stepping into the legal fight, arguing that Klingon, and other "constructed languages," are real, living forms of communication exempt from copyright law. Their amicus brief is, of course, partly in Klingon.

First They Came for Pig Latin ...

The dispute arose after CBS and Paramount sued the producers of "Star Trek: Axanar," a fan film that takes place in the "Star Trek" universe and features the use of the Klingon language.

"The producers of Axanar have publicly stated that they plan to make a fully-professional independent commercial Star Trek film using our intellectual property -- that clearly is not allowed under copyright laws," CBS and Paramount argue. And their objections include the claim that the unlicensed use of Klingon amounts to copyright infringement, according to the Washington Post.

Yab Bang Chut and Spoken Languages

Enter the Language Creation Society, a California nonprofit dedicated to constructed languages or "colangs," such as Esperanto, Lojban, and, yes, Klingon. Their argument is straightforward. Klingon is "no longer just a few lines of dialogue in a movie," the society argues, but a fully functioning language with a "living community of Klingon speakers."

Not only can you read Shakespeare in Klingon, but there's court dicta saying that Klingon-language contracts are enforceable. The Welsh government has even responded to official inquiries in Klingon. Even "Sesame Street's" theme song has a Klingon translation.

As a robust linguistic system, Klingon is uncopyrightable, the brief argues. What's newsworthy about the brief is not just the legal argument it makes, however, but the way it makes it.

The amicus brief is replete with Klingon-isms, such as the Klingon proverb "rut neH 'oH vlta'Qo'Qob law' yu' jang." (That's "Sometimes the only thing more dangerous than a question is an answer," in English.) Intellectual property is dubbed "yab bang chut," or "mind property law." It's a rough translation, as Klingon lacks a word for "intellectual."

And the brief doesn't just use Klingon phrases, it uses the Klingon alphabet as well, providing English translations and transliterating Klingon characters into the Latin alphabet only in footnotes.

Will the brief be enough to convince the District Court of the Central District of California? Perhaps. But even if it does not, there would be no shame in the Language Creation Society's defeat. To paraphrase the Klingon saying, pum wa' Hol tul HubtaHvIS Hoch tlhIngan -- to fall defending one's language is the hope of every Klingon.

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