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Who Owns a Language? Why Klingon Matters
Posted by Arle Lommel on May 2, 2016  in the following blogs: Technology, Translation and Localization
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Who owns a language? This question recently emerged when Paramount Pictures and CBS claimed copyright to the Klingon language. Klingon is an “artificial” or invented language, one of hundreds of such tongues dating back to at least the early medieval period. Linguist Marc Okrand invented it for the movie Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Even though few of us will ever need Klingon translation services, at least one individual attempted to raise his child to be fully bilingual in it.

The copyright issue arose when Axanar Productions announced plans to make Axanar, an independent fan film set in Star Trek’s universe. Paramount and CBS responded with a copyright lawsuit to halt production. After the film’s producers filed a motion to quash the suit due to lack of specificity, Paramount provided the courts with a list of individual items over which it claimed copyright – and rights upon which it said Axanar would infringe.

Many of the items – such as the appearance of spaceships, specific terms from the show and films, and individual names and technologies – did not incite particular controversy, but the claim to copyright a language did. On April 28 the Language Creation Society filed an amicus brief stating that entire languages should not be subject to copyright. They argue that Klingon has “taken on a life of its own” and that thousands of individuals use it for communication, even creating literary works in the language – all activities that a Paramount victory would effectively prohibit. The Language Creation Society also points out that Bing Translator provides machine translation (MT) to and from Klingon.

More relevant to the language industry, however, they argue that one cannot copyright a language, but rather only a specific message in that language. They contend that many modern languages are actually artificial constructions made by national language bodies. In the case of French, for example, the Académie française effectively “constructed… significant parts of French,” and – if it were able to copyright the language – it could prohibit anyone from writing or speaking in French.

It is extremely unlikely that anyone could copyright a widely spoken language like French or German. However, in 2013 the estate of Marvin Gaye successfully sued Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams for plagiarism of the “feeling” and “sound” of some of Gaye’s songs in their hit “Blurred Lines” – without claiming that they copied any actual song. With that and a Paramount victory as precedents, it is conceivable that a large corporation could claim copyright of its style (particularly if it is codified in a style sheet) to prevent others from using that or a similar one.

Admittedly, such a case is unlikely, but even the threat of such claims would prove troubling for statistical MT systems – which make use of bilingual text databases to produce translations. Attempts to preemptively license particular organizations’ ways of using a language would be prohibitively expensive and harm progress.

Even if most of us do not care about the fate of a language spoken by a few thousand self-proclaimed nerds who wear prosthetic foreheads, the lawsuit has potentially far-reaching implications for enterprises and professionals who deal with words for a living. Ensuring that language itself remains free from constraint is vital to the success of globalization.


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