More than 30 years after it was created, the Klingon language still knows how to get attention in the press. That was apparent in recent weeks when some news outlets focused on its inclusion as part of a copyright infringement lawsuit CBS Corp. and Paramount Pictures has filed against a fan-film.
But can someone (or some company) actually own a language? And if so, who owns it?
It’s not Marc Okrand, the man credited with creating the language with some early help from James Doohan. He said it himself during a recent podcast interview on Look at His Butt.
“This is not the first time that who owns Klingon issue came up,” Okrand told the podcast over the weekend. “It is an artificial language that was created for hire … to the best of my knowledge, it has never been officially settled by anybody.”
Okrand admits his creation of the language was a “work for hire” by Paramount, which owned all the Star Trek rights at the time. That means his product falls under the ownership of Paramount, not him. For example, while he is credited as the author of the popular Klingon dictionary book, the copyright for the book is owned by Paramount.
“The language is not, the book is,” Okrand said. “If you pick up a copy of Webster’s dictionary, it’s copyrighted. It doesn’t mean every word in the book is copyrighted. This work, this collection of things, is copyrighted. And it’s the same thing with the Klingon dictionary.”
The Klingon language was one of just dozens of works CBS and Paramount claimed ownership of in an amended complaint the studios filed against Axanar Productions and its producer, Alec Peters. The “independent” fan-film raised more than $1.3 million, according to Peters, creating a studio, a “donor store” and other ancillary offerings that pushed the studios into filing the lawsuit.
When the amended complaint was filed, trade publications like The Hollywood Reporter zeroed in on the Klingon language itself, creating questions on whether or not someone can own a language. Axanar’s attorney, Erin Ranahan, questioned it as well in a motion to dismiss, claiming that no one can copyright “useful” things, like clothing and languages.
However, CBS/Paramount attorney David Grossman countered with a statement that a language is “only useful if it can be used to communicate with people,” pointing out that “there are no Klingons with whom to communicate.”
Even Okrand acknowledged that while it was fun to see the Klingon language he created getting some renewed press attention, it’s hardly the primary focus of the copyright infringement suit.
“It would be interesting to see what happens,” he said. “My guess is that the language complaint to all this is very small potatoes. Mostly what they are concerned about, it’s other things. The language is in the mix, but there are all these other things, too.”
CBS and Paramount have asked for either actual damages from Axanar in the lawsuit, or statutory damages that could top out at $150,000 per violation. The studios also want to stop from moving forward any other Star Trek-related work by Axanar and Peters, as well as a group of unnamed “John Doe” defendants, that could later include other members of the production stuff.
Okrand is not named in the suit.
To hear Okrand’s full interview with Look at His Butt, click here.
h/t Carlos Pedraza