Arts, Culture & Media

Why a lawyer wrote a legal brief partially in Klingon

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Performers Ali Kidder-Mostrom, left, and David Coupe perform a fight scene as a translation of their dialogue is projected on a screen during a performance of "A Klingon Christmas Carol" in Chicago, December 20, 2012. The play is an adaptation of Charles Dickens' classic tale "A Christmas Carol" and is translated into the Klingon language and adapted to Klingon culture. Klingons are a fictional alien culture that originated from the Star Trek television series.

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Jim Young/Reuters. 

Attorney Marc Randazza is an internet-famous lawyer who has made a habit out of working on odd and occasionally controversial cases. So it wasn’t exactly surprising that an amicus brief he wrote went viral last week.

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The reason, however, was novel: He wrote it using phrases from Klingon, setting what appears to be a precedent for a legal document filed in a Star Trek-inspired language. The internet rejoiced.

The language choice was for more than just the LOLs. It was also strategic. Randazza filed his brief on behalf of the The Language Creation Society, which was objecting to Paramount’s attempt to claim copyright over the Klingon language as part of its larger copyright claim against Axanar Productions, a company that is seeking to make a Klingon inspired film. So why did he need to actually write with flourishes of a language no judge is likely to read?

“It was the only way to do it. I don’t think you could have explained it any other way that would have just pounded the point home,” he says in a call from his Las Vegas office. “The only thing that made it better is that then people on the internet started yelling at me because my Klingon grammar wasn’t exactly right.

"As soon as people started criticizing my Klingon grammar, and what a real Klingon would say at a time like this and that time ... I said no, this is exactly proving my point. If we can have a debate over what would be grammatically correct to say in Klingon, if there is a dispute over how to say intellectual property law in Klingon, then it’s a living language.”

The idea of a language being “living” is key to Randazza’s legal point. The question of whether a constructed language can be “owned” or copyrighted by anyone is an old one that hasn’t been fully settled. One important precedent was established when Adobe claimed that Google had violated its copyright of the Java programming language. As Verge writer Adi Robertson wrote in her survey of the topic, the court ruled that specific programs or, in this case, APIs, did fall under copyright. The language itself did not.

By the same logic, while specific works in Klingon could be copyrighted — like a love poem written in Klingon or bits of Klingon dialogue from Star Trek — the language itself cannot.

“There really is some debate as to whether a constructed language can ever be copyrighted. I think it cannot be because by necessity it is a system or a process and not a work,” Randazza says. “If you used Paramount’s version of Vulcan, if we want to nerd out even more, as far as I know, Vulcan has only been used for four or five lines and there is no dictionary of it, and nobody gets together to speak it. You might be able to say that those lines themselves are copyrightable, so lifting those would be a violation of copyright.”

Randazza believes that if Klingon can’t be copyrighted, then neither can Dothraki, the created language du jour from Game of Thrones.  For the time being at least, every page of dothraki.com is tagged with the disclaimer “Dothraki language and Game of Thrones copyright © HBO.”

“I mean that’s the real question here, can you copyright Dothraki? You can copyright the Dothraki lines in Game of Thrones. But the moment two people sit down, and have a conversation in Dothraki, I think you have lost that control.”

Despite his recent Star Trek inspired internet virality, Randazza is no Trekkie. His one experience with the show is, much like his legal career, somewhat unorthodox.

“I do not own a set of Spock ears. The only time I’ve ever been to a Star Trek convention was in 1988, and I was walking through Copley Square in Boston tripping on acid ... and I noticed there were all these people around that looked like they were from Star Trek and I figured I was the only person who could see it. And then I bumped straight into Scotty, signing autographs. I apparently cut the whole line and he was like  'So you got something for me to sign, or what?' And I all I had was a box of condoms, so he autographed a box of condoms for me. That’s about the Trekiest thing that I’ve ever done.”

Still, his experience writing the brief gave him a particular appreciation for Klingon. Originally created by linguist Marc Okrand, it now has its own language institute and an academic research journal. One can get certified as a Klingon speaker, attend a theatrical adaptation of 'A Christmas Carol' performed entirely in Klingon, and one couple has been married in Klingon.

MOREAn author describes her experience at a Klingon convention where she prepped for a Klingon proficiency exam

Like any language, it has become more than a collection of vocabulary and grammatical rules, and carries with it a certain worldview.

“I would say it’s a very efficient language," Randazza says. "There is no word for hello, because what’s the point of hello? In Klingon, the closest thing to that would be, what do you want? Based on the Star Trek mythology, there is a certain mentality baked into the language. So in English, the Sesame Street theme song's lyrics are 'Sunny day. Chasing the clouds away,' but in Klingon, the only way to say that is, 'Day of the Day time star, the clouds are filled with dread and forced to flee.'”

One thing Klingon isn’t good for, however, is ending a conversation, at least not politely.

“There is no thank you. All you would is that when you’re finished, you would just hang up, and that would be my sign that you have no more use for me.”

National Endowment for the Humanities

With support from the National Endowment for the Humanities