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A legal battle about the Klingon language could affect the future of computer programming

AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli
Can speaking a language be a crime?
By Corinne Purtill
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

The most ardent Star Trek fans go so far as to make their own versions of the classic movies—but not without legal risks. Last year Paramount Pictures and CBS hit the makers of a Kickstarter-funded film with a lawsuit. They claimed that Prelude to Axanar, a 2014 short, and its planned full-length sequel Axanar infringe on copyrighted Star Trek characters and themes.

So far, so mundane. But one of the copyrights allegedly infringed is that of Klingon, the language spoken by fictional humanoids of the same name. And this has elevated the suit from a routine intellectual-property dispute to a case with potentially big consequences for the future of programming and creativity.

Late last month, the Language Creation Society filed an amicus brief siding with the filmmakers. In a document written partly in Klingon, the society argued that while Paramount commissioned the creation of the language in 1984 from linguist Marc Okrand, the language “has taken on a life of its own.” There are groups of fans whose only shared language is Klingon. People have tried to raise children as native Klingon speakers.

If a language is copyrighted, the group argued, then all ideas subsequently expressed in it could be too. Owning a language would mean having the right to block any future work in that language.

That matters to the makers of Axanar. It could also really, really matter to the countless developers and programmers who work on programming languages, the ownership of which has been the subject of legal disputes in the US and Europe.

Perhaps the best-known is a years-long battle between Oracle and Google. Oracle alleged that Google stole from it when it used some of Oracle’s code for its Android software: specifically, parts of Oracle’s Java APIs. (An API is a kind of translator; it lets different software systems swap information in a mutually intelligible form.) In a 2012 ruling against Oracle, a judge called the code in question ”a utilitarian and functional set of symbols” that couldn’t be copyrighted.

Two years later, a federal judge disagreed, ruling that it is possible to copyright an API. That decision panicked the tech world. But it also had wider ramifications, argued Charles Duan in Slate.

An API, or at least the parts Oracle wanted to protect, is a lot like a language, Duan posited: “a collection of words—a vocabulary—attached to certain contextual rules as to how those words are to be used—a grammar.” The federal judge’s ruling, he said, “if broadly read,” would not only limit the use of APIs but also make it a breach of copyright to speak a constructed language, like Klingon or Esperanto.

And if so, could a ruling against Klingon’s use in a film like Axanar be interpreted as also limiting software developers’ ability to copy APIs?

That question may be tested in the courts. Yesterday (May 10), opening arguments started in a new trial over whether Google’s use of the Oracle API is “fair use” under copyright law. The Star Trek/Axanar case, meanwhile, is scheduled to go to court in May 2017, according to NPR. Anyone interested in one should pay attention to the other too. Both cases address the question of whether using an invented language to create something new can be a crime.

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