Phaser fire in legal battle over Klingons
Courts sometimes hear the most bizarre cases. Lawyers are currently firing phasers across a California courtroom arguing in legalese over whether Klingons are real, and whether they are protected under copyright.
For those who don’t know a Klingon from a Ferengi, they are a fierce alien warrior species in the popular Star Trek world created for a TV series and a string of blockbuster movies.
It all began when a Star Trek fan made his own amateur short movie called Axanar, including Klingons, and stuck it on YouTube where it was viewed two million times.
It was just for fun, but Paramount Pictures and CBS Studio went to war when the amateur filmmaker raised half a million dollars through Crowdfunding to make a second, more lavish film. The studios stepped in, arguing they have exclusive rights to Star Trek and everything in it, and sued the amateur filmmaker for breach of copyright.
Studio lawyers told the court the studios have exclusive rights to Star Trek “props, character makeup, costumes, sets, fictional language, events and fictional history”.
Axanar’s producer fired back, arguing the Klingon language is an idea or a system, and therefore “not copyrightable”.
The studios ducked that blast, firing back that a language is only useful when it can be used to communicate with people “and there are no Klingons with whom to communicate”.
Trek fans around the world who dress as Klingons and speak the guttural language – yes a Klingon dictionary does exist – were mortified. After all, Shakespeare’s Hamlet has been translated into Klingon, A Christmas Carol has been performed in Klingon on stage in Chicago, and the online Klingon Language Institute offers lessons in how to speak Klingon.
Axanar’s lawyers argued Star Trek’s creators had drawn on previous inventions in science fiction such as ray guns, aliens with pointy ears, laser pistols, flying saucers and space battles.
Anneka Frayne, lawyer with Stacks Law Firm, said the case opens an interesting legal conundrum.
“If some humans are speaking and communicating in Klingon, is it therefore a real language, or just a copyrighted creature creation for a science fiction franchise? Are fans who dress up in Star Trek outfits breaching copyright?
“What about languages invented for other fictional stories such as Elvish from Lord of the Rings, Dothraki from Game of Thrones, and Na’vi from the film Avatar. Can studios claim copyright on vampires, werewolves, fairies, elves and goblins when they have existed in folklore for hundreds of years?”
At the moment the case doesn’t have any application to copyright law in Australia, unless of course, the Klingons invade.