Are Fictional Languages Copyrightable?


Are Fictional Languages Copyrightable?

"Ñuhor līr gūrēnna.” In High Valyrian, the phrase means “I will take what is mine.” In Game of Thrones it is used by an exiled princess reclaiming her throne. Fortunately, the statement hasn’t been adopted by David J. Peterson — the linguist who created the fictional language — to reclaim the words themselves. But could it be?

Fictional languages are developed for use in a fictional world — rather than evolving naturally, they are constructed by a person or group of people.

In recent years, fictional languages have seen increased use both inside and outside of the worlds for which they are created. For example, popular language-learning app Duolingo currently teaches courses in both High Valyrian and Klingon. Other fictional languages that people learn in real life include Dothraki from Game of Thrones, Sindarin and Quenya from The Lord of the Rings, Newspeak from 1984, and even Simlish from the Sims computer games.

But what are the copyright ramifications of using fictional languages without the permission of their creators? Do the inventors of languages own a copyright in their work?

Fictional languages are certainly not only used in their imaginary worlds of origin — many are fully-fledged languages in use today by speakers around the world. For example, Klingon, a language first created for the Star Trek movie franchise, is used by members of the Klingon Language Institute, among others, as an actual means of communication. According to the Language Creation Society, at least one child has been raised as a native speaker of Klingon. If copyright protection extends to fictional languages, then, it could have extensive ramifications, not only for those who may want to use the languages in fanfiction or art, but for everyday speakers.

Paramount v. Axanar

As of this writing, the Canadian courts have not addressed whether a fictional language is protectable by copyright, but the question is an important one among conlangers (creators of constructed languages).

One California trial court drew media attention to this question in 2017 (Paramount Pictures v. Axanar Productions, 121 U.S.P.Q.2d 1699 (C.D. Cal. 2017)). Paramount had filed a lawsuit over the alleged infringement of the Star Trek franchise in a fan-made film and argued that one of the elements through which the film infringed their copyright was the use of the Klingon language. The Language Creation Society, a group dedicated to the creation of constructed languages, filed an impassioned amicus brief arguing that “even the Pakleds [a group of unintelligent humanoids from the Star Trek franchise] would know that nobody can ‘own’ a language.”

Unfortunately, the court held that it did not need to decide whether a fictional language could be subject to copyright protection, as its use was only one way out of many in which the film was like the Star Trek source material.

Fictional Languages as Systems

What can we make of this question, then? A fundamental principle in Canadian and US copyright law is that only a person’s specific expression is copyrightable. By contrast, there is no copyright protection for a person’s ideas, nor for the systems or methods of operation which a person creates. (Moreau v. St. Vincent, 1950 CanLII 248 (FC); Bikram’s Yoga College v. Evolation Yoga, 803 F.3d 1032 (9th Circ. 2015)).

Because languages are intricate frameworks of vocabulary, syntax, grammar, and phonetics, which by themselves do not convey meaning, I would argue that a language — even a fictional one — is a system and therefore not subject to copyright protection. It is only through the creative efforts of individual speakers of Klingon, High Valyrian, Simlish, and other fictional languages that we bring these components together and create linguistic expression.

 Or, as an everyday Dothraki speaker might say, “Me achrae athnajaharoon” (“Smells like victory”).