COPYRIGHTING A LANGUAGE.

Ernest Miller (a fellow of the Information Society Project at Yale), responding to the post Klingon is Copyrighted at BoingBoing, asks:

However, can you really copyright a language? You can copyright a dictionary, certainly, but can you copyright grammar? I’m not sure you can copyright grammar at all, since it is a set of rules regarding word usage. Grammar is an idea, that can probably only be expressed in a fairly limited number of ways, even if fanciful.
Additionally, each Klingon word would seem to be too short to qualify as copyrightable individually. I don’t think that a list of words in a dictionary format would be copyrightable under Feist. So, I’m not sure at all how one could copyright a language. The individual descriptions of the words might be copyrightable, but as long as they aren’t exact copies, the idea/expression dichotomy should provide only limited copyright protection to Paramount.

His remarks about “grammar” clearly indicate he’s never taken a linguistics class (and probably never studied anything more exotic than French) [nb: this is intended as a snipe at the American educational system, not at Mr. Miller], but I think his general point is valid: it doesn’t make sense to copyright a language. I wonder if Margaret Marks will have any thoughts on this? (Thanks to Songdog for the link.)

Comments

  1. Michael Farris says:

    Not exactly on topic 100% but in the 80 or so per cent range:
    I was once interested in sign language transcription systems and being unsatisfied with most of them, finally came up with my own, which was heavily influenced by an existing system (somewhat over half my symbols were taken directly or indirectly from the existing system (SignFont)) so before using it in a publication I contacted one of the creators to see about copyright (maybe I should have thought about that a lot earlier, but …)
    Anyway, he said the team that created SignFont checked and (in the late 80’s) one could not copyright a script, but one could copyright a specific font in that script. I don’t know if that’s been changed in more recent updates to copyright law which seem to have the aim of extending copyright into infinity (note to estate managers, get a job).
    Anyway, if you can’t copyright a script, I’m sure you can’t copyright a language, only specific texts in that language. I don’t know about the status of the individual sample sentences from the Klingon books. Though obviously the books as teaching devices or reference materials can be copyrighted in their whole.
    I wonder if a rival SF program could have a Klingon speaking character (if the character wasn’t identified as Klingon, didn’t look Klingon and the language wasn’t called Klingon or tlIngaan or whatever it is).

  2. I’m sure that you can’t copyright a language.
    I suspect that the issue with Klingon is not copyright but trademark. Klingon may well be a trademark, and if so, nobody else can call a language or other product Klingon without the permission of the owner of the mark. However,
    it seems to me that in the case of a language
    there are interesting legal issues.
    For instance, I am perfectly free to write about
    Ford automobiles and I can refer to them as Ford products without the permission of Ford. I can write a review, or discuss my experiences with them, or give instructions on how to repair them or modify them, all the while using the Ford trademark. What I can’t do is manufacture my own brand of automobiles and call them “Ford”.
    So, while I can’t make up my own language and call it “Klingon” without the permission of the owner of the mark, arguably I am perfectly free not only to comment on Klingon but to describe it. And since describing a language takes the form of compiling such things as dictionaries and grammars, presumably I should be as free to produce a dictionary of Klingon as I am to produce a list of components of a Ford automobile.

  3. Just a thought – whoever were to buy the copyright of Klingon could spare the world from it forever, couldn’t they?
    How much?

  4. A martial arts instructor once devised a fighting system specifically for the weapons depicted on the television show. He published a bilingual (English/Klingon) book and illustrated it with photos of appropriately attired and made up models using the weapons. The word Klingon (yes, it’s trademarked, but they haven’t trademarked “tlhIngan Hol”), appeared nowhere in the book. Soon after publication, a great weight of lawyers descended and he was forced to destroy every unsold copy. I think in this case they hung their objection on the Klingon appearance of the models, and not exclusively the language. I don’t believe the issue was ever fought in court; the tiny martial arts publisher chose to live to fight another day.
    The Klingon Language Institute holds a bit of lawyer-endorsed paper that gives it limited abilities to publish Klingon materials. Even Paramount realizes that students of Klingon mean money in their pockets from the sales of the dictionary and supplementary materials.
    Other shows and movies have featured spoken Klingon: Frasier and Daddy Day Care are the two that come to mind.

  5. “Additionally, each Klingon word would seem to be too short to qualify as copyrightable individually.”
    If I’m not mistaken, Aram Saroyan’s one-word poem
    lighght
    was copyrighted.
    I think his letters have also been copyrighted
    (four-legged m viz: two versions
    http://www.artpool.hu/kepkolteszet/kepek/saroyan.gif
    http://www.ubu.com/historical/saroyan/images/18.gif
    He has other short poems, probably copyrighted, eg
    Ted Ted Ted Ted
    Ted

    and
    sing, swim, sing
    and
    priit
    and
    I crazy
    and
    aaple
    and
    lobstee
    and
    torgh
    and
    Alice
    and
          ney
    mo
    money

    http://www.ubu.com/historical/saroyan/pages/pages.html
    RIGHGHT©

  6. I asked an IP lawyer about this (luckily one’s been admitted as a grad student to our department next year). briefly, one:
    Can’t copyright a language.
    Can’t copyright oral history (a really sore point with me – if I write down traditional stories from old people, I have way more rights under the law than they do, even though they are the owners of the stories.)
    Can’t copyright a script.
    CAN copyright a font, and the [published] material records of a language.

  7. CAN copyright… the [published] material records of a language.
    In other words, if I publish some tablets with records of a hitherto unknown language, nobody else can quote the material without my permission? I presume they could go to the original tablets and copy the text for themselves — but how could anyone prove they’d done that rather than copied my copyrighted text? Ah, the intricacies of the law…

  8. So if you can’t copyright a language, does that mean you can’t sell it?
    Marc Okrand developed the Klingon language under contract, and his work became the property of Paramount. The implication is that he couldn’t actually sell it, so that while Paramount owns The Klingon Dictionary, Klingon for the Galactic Traveler and other titles, it is Okrand that owns the language?

  9. I believe in the US, the concept of “fair usage” would apply – wouldn’t speaking Klingon, which after all is a language and therefore a vehicle for mass communication, constitute “fair usage” and therefore be exempt from copyright legislation?

  10. Can’t copyright a script
    Does that mean like a movie or theater script? Because you should be able to copyright that. But if that means a style of writing, no problem.

  11. Clare writes: “I asked an IP lawyer about this [who said] CAN copyright a font”.
    I hesitate to question an actual IP lawyer, but it seems that this is a matter of who you ask and where, and is not a settled thing. Font designs–typefaces–themselves are not copyrightable in the US, at least not enough to please some people who fervently wish they were. See http://www.typeright.org/feature4.html.
    Font *software*, qua software, is quite another matter. The very question generated heated debate and strongly worded Cease & Desist letters not very long ago, see http://www.politechbot.com/p-03506.html

  12. you know that James Cooke Brown tried to copywright his Loglan: that was why the Lojbanists split off.
    they wanted to make his language available to everyone for free, instead of selling it to them in bits & pieces.
    m.
    PS the court, of course, ruled in favor of the latter

  13. The implication is that […] it is Okrand that owns the language?
    It seems to me more like the implication is that no one owns the language itself.

  14. Alan Anderson says:

    Marc Okrand developed the Klingon language under contract…
    More accurately, he wrote the Klingon dialogue for some Star Trek movies. There’s nothing in that arrangement which suggests that the language is legally the property of any person or corporation, except the feeble protestations of the Viacom legal department.
    The serious student of Klingon will graciously concede that the language is and should be controlled by its creator, but like any language it belongs to its users.

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