Can you copyright a language? CBS and Paramount think so
Since late last year the Star Trek short fan film Prelude to Axanar, and it’s feature length follow up Axanar, have been embroiled in a massive legal imbroglio between Alec Peters’ Axanar Productions, and a Paramount/CBS team-up. While the fate of the project remains in doubt, it could lead to an even bigger legal battle over the question: Can you copyright a language?
Before the legal action, professionally made Star Trek fan-films were close to becoming a cottage industry, with films attracting top talent – including former Star Trek cast members. Fan made Star Trek films and series have been around for more than a decade, but after raising $630,000 via crowdfunding, Axanar was poised to be the biggest yet. For fans of Peters’ work, Axanar felt like a fan film that would not only be spiritually faithful, but also offer professional quality.
Then in December 2015, Paramount and CBS sued to stop production on the film.
Their complaint stated, “The Axanar Works infringe Plaintiffs’ works by using innumerable copyrighted elements of Star Trek, including its settings, characters, species, and themes.” That was just the first round though.
Peters responded with a counterclaim in February that called out Paramount and CBS for their confusing copyrights (Paramount has the movies, and CBS has TV properties). It’s been a fascinating and frustrating legal back and forth.
“Axanar is a fan film. Fan films – whether related to Star Trek, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Power Rangers, Batman or any other franchise – are labors of love that keep fans engaged, entertained, and keep favorite characters alive in the hearts of fans,” Peters wrote on Facebook.
“Like other current fan films, Axanar entered production based on a very long history and relationship between fandom and studios. We’re not doing anything new here.”
A case for language
Paramount/CBS’ legal team from Loeb & Loeb, are claiming ownership over Star Trek related settings, characters, and races. That isn’t surprising, of course – that’s exactly what you’d expect from a copyright claim – it’s also probably exactly what Peters’ legal team expected.
One of the more contentious – and important – legal fights though, revolves around language.
Peters argued that the Klingon language isn’t copyrightable because it’s nothing more than an idea or a system. Paramount and CBS disagreed, stating “This argument is absurd, since a language is only useful if it can be used to communicate with people, and there are no Klingons with whom to communicate.
“[The] Defendants’ use of the Klingon language in their works is simply further evidence of their infringement of [the] Plaintiffs’ characters, since speaking this fictitious language is an aspect of their characters.”
So can you copyright a language? Well, it’s complicated.
The difference in languages
In 2012, Oracle went to court in an attempt to copyright Java, the coding language it created. Oracle elected to seek legal action when Google used a huge amount of Java for its Android operating systems. Google rewrote most of Oracle’s code, but kept some of Java’s APIs (application program interface) to make it easier for developers familiar with the coding language.
Oracle lost the initial case, but it appealed the decision and a judge ruled that while Oracle couldn’t copyright the language, it could copyright its APIs. The courts saw this very much as a technology issue, but most legal experts also saw it as an argument involving the legality of languages.
So basically, Oracle can copyright the specific tools it uses on the language it created, and it could also copyright the name of the language (Java), but it can’t copyright the language itself. Similarly, you could theoretically use Tolkien’s Elvish language to create something original, but you could not reprint something he wrote in Elvish without infringing on the Tolkien estate’s copyrights. At least in theory. In practice – and legally – it’s more complicated.
The issue really comes down to what language is. The prevailing sentiment, legally speaking, is that it’s a series of ideas, a system, and/or a method of operation, which cannot be copyrighted. The CBS/Paramount legal team, however, is arguing that since there are no real Klingons, the Klingon language is therefore essentially a series of facts, which can be copyrighted.
There is no argument over organic languages like English, Spanish, French, etc., etc. Those are natural languages, which have developed over the course of time. There is no legal way to copyright those languages. Klingon, however, is a manufactured language, created in the 80s by a guy named Marc Okrand under contract from Paramount.
In an interview on the podcast Look At His Butt, Okrand said, “This is not the first time that who owns Klingon issue came up. It is an artificial language that was created for hire … to the best of my knowledge, it has never been officially settled by anybody.”
Depending on how far this goes, the legal implications and potential precedents set could define the nature of language, at least legally speaking.
There’s also another interesting legal question raised by the lawsuits – can you copyright clothing. That may seem more cut and dry than with language, especially given the distinctive and unique clothes seen in Star Trek, but it’s more complicated than that. It’s also a question the fashion industry has been arguing over for years.
All in all, Paramount and CBS’s aggressive posturing on Axanar has been surprising. While both companies have suppressed fan projects in the past, for the most part they have had a fairly hands off approach with fan works.
The change in legal stance is likely down to a combination of the upcoming plans for Star Trek, as well as the potential quality (in terms of look) fan films are capable of.
CBS and Paramount don’t want anything to interfere with their future marketing blitz concerning Star Trek Beyond and CBS’ upcoming Star Trek TV series. If Axanar turned out to be a crap film, it could – at least in theory – hurt the brand. Alternatively, if it’s good and high quality, it could confuse fans as to what is actually Star Trek canon and what is just fan fiction.
Alec Peters has a talented crew and cast members that are well known, including many that have previously been in Star Trek properties. This legal dispute could also just be an attempt to squash a quality competitor, which just seems silly and petty. Either way, it could end up leading to a massive legal case involving the nature of language.
Additional reporting by Ryan Fleming.