As Attorneys Clash Over Star Trek, Question Arises Over Essence of a Klingon

May 2, 2016, 5:38 PM

Twenty-eight pages on the essence of Star Trek. A thesis on the history and myths behind Vulcans. All of this and more can be found in a lawsuit that is quickly resembling its own subject: a compelling work of fan-fiction.

The saga began last December, when CBS and Paramount Pictures filed a claim for copyright infringement against Trekkies Alec Peters and Axanar Productions, Inc., for using “innumerable copyrighted elements of Star Trek, including its settings, characters, species, and themes” in their fan-films, the recent short Star Trek: Prelude to Axanar and a planned feature, Axanar. Though the studios have tolerated similar tributes in the past — the complaint, authored by David Grossman of Loeb & Loeb, points to defendant’s self-described aim to “look and feel like a true Star Trek movie,” polished production, and more than $1 million in crowdfunding as moments of concern.


Alec Peters, of Axanar Productions, explains why he believes his production company can produce an independent Star Trek film without illegally infringing the copyright.

In response, Erin Ranahan of Winston & Strawn filed a motion to dismiss on behalf of the defendants for among other things, a failure to specify what exactly these copyrighted elements in Star Trek actually are. Inevitably, this then led to an amended complaint that lays out the finer points of the Trek universe, from Vulcan architecture and warp drives to the Klingon language (counsel helpfully elaborates “Klingonese or Klingon, the native language of Qo’nos”). Undaunted, defendants challenged the protection of these elements, even going back to the 1879 case Baker v. Selden for the proposition that Klingon is a useful system not subject to copyright — an argument that plaintiffs find “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.”

Never the kind to shirk a battle, it was only highly logical for the Klingons to enter the fray as amicus curiae — or more properly, the non-profit Language Creation Society on behalf of its speakers everywhere.

But that’s really part of the point: What is a Klingon, anyway? This is just one of many questions that U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner could have the distinction of answering.

Of course the brief uses the Klingon alphabet. Of course it includes proverbs like tugh qoH nachDaj je chevlu’ta’ — or “a fool and his head are soon parted.” But it also speculates seriously on how a constructed language can sometimes “take[] on a life of its own” and how no court has actually addressed whether copyright applies here. That there are groups of trekkies for whom “Klingon is their only common language” and at least one child has been raised as a native speaker are also facts that Judge Klausner may need — but nevertheless not want to know — about this world in deciding the question.

This all (obviously) recalls In Re: Lieutenant Commander Data, where Captain Phillipa Louvois was faced with whether an android was a sentient being with rights and freedoms under Federation Law — a case which “dealt with metaphysics, with questions best left to saints and philosophers.” The matter was nevertheless resolved in favor of Commander Data — after all, “a courtroom is a crucible; in it we burn away irrelevancies until we are left with a pure product: the truth, for all time.”

So what is the measure of a Klingon? Perhaps this docket will give an answer soon.

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