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zompist bboard • View topic - Conlangs and copyright

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 Post subject: Conlangs and copyright
PostPosted: Tue May 03, 2016 6:46 am 
Lebom
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(I'm not sure quite where this should go - it is in some senses fit for Ephemera or NOTA, being about "current affairs"/the real world, but it is also about conlangs!)

There is a court case going on at the moment that partly revolves around the copyright status of Klingon - with potential implications for the status of other constructed languages. See https://twitter.com/FiatLingua for a lot of links.

What do people think about this issue? Can or should constructed languages be copyrighted or not?

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PostPosted: Tue May 03, 2016 8:34 am 
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Conventional wisdom (among conlangers, anyway) is that conlangs can't be copyrighted, but works about them can be. (so a grammar of your conlang can be copyrighted, but the language itself isn't copyrightable) There's been a number of discussions about this on the CONLANG list; . There has never yet been a court case that clearly determined whether or not they're covered, though.

The LCS filed an amicus brief on the Paramount vs. Axanar case, btw, arguing conlangs aren't copyrightable. You can read more about that (and read the brief) .

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PostPosted: Tue May 03, 2016 10:18 am 
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There has been A LOT of arguments about this over the years related to Tolkien's languages, specifically whether (or similar sites) constituted copyright infringment because it had (relatively complete) lists of vocabulary.

I'm not a lawyer, but the sensible position seems like writing about or using someone else's conlang shouldn't be much of an issue unless you claim the creation of the grammar & vocabulary as your own work.

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PostPosted: Tue May 03, 2016 1:17 pm 
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A language in and of itself probably is not copyrightable. I could see how word lists, however, were copyrightable. That it would be difficult for a third party to create, say, a dictionary based on that word list, since the original lexicon by the creator is the only source. Unless the author engages in original research of the corpus, and finds new meanings not described in the original lexicon. But it could get hairy. KLI has avoided duplicating the vocabulary lists in the Klingon Dictionary, keeping only lists of vocabulary not covered in the original lexicon, but they should be free to describe the grammar in their own words. There's a hundred ways to describe the grammar of a language.

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PostPosted: Wed May 04, 2016 8:40 am 
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A language may not be copyrightable, but a conlang is a documented, written work. A conlang cannot exist, complete, in someone's or a collective's mind(s), as natlangs do. There are very few conlangs which are actually well known around the world and spoken by a good number of people. Klingon, for example, is spoken by many people and does not necessarily require a written document (anymore) to be used, whereas Quebric, my current conlang project, is unknown to anyone other than myself. My point is that if someone stole my conlang they'd need to steal a physical work, Word documents, written notes, a word list etc, for someone to use Klingon in their work they need only to consult a Klingon speaker. So my argument is that if something nearing ubiquity and is a part of popular culture like Klingon then it can't be copyrighted, just like Sony couldn't copyright "blue-ray" (but can "blu-ray"); but something like Quebric which is unknown to anyone other than myself and the few members here who've seen snippets can be copyrighted, as it can only exist in a written, documented form.

But copyright laws differ from country to country and one countries laws have no jurisdiction in other territories...

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PostPosted: Wed May 04, 2016 7:42 pm 
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Conceptually it seems clear that conlangs aren't copyrightable. But of course, whether the US courts will agree, when a major corporation is telling them not to, is another matter.

[Regarding dictionaries based on word lists: I think even there you've got good odds, as "comment", "scholarship" and "research" are fair use, and the dictionary maker may be using only small sections of actual copied text. Importantly, the principle is that facts cannot be copyrighted, which presumably includes facts about what an author has previously written. So I can say "In Tolkien's books, Gandalf is a wizard" - that's a fact, it's not copyrightable. Likewise I can surely say "In Quenya, the word for a tongue is "lamba"" - that's just a shorthand for "In Tolkien's works, it is said that in Quenya...", which is a historical/literary fact, and not copyrightable. So surely I can write a dictionary saying: "lamba: n., tongue (physical)"?]

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PostPosted: Thu May 05, 2016 3:44 am 
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PostPosted: Sun May 08, 2016 9:04 pm 
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Having looked into this case a little, it seems that the other company have made a film in the Star Trek universe, which is a pretty stupid thing to do and would break a million copyrights anyway. It seems that paramount's position is that they've used a bunch of copyrighted materials, and regardless of whether the Klingon language itself can be copyrighted, using it is a pretty clear red flag that they have genuinely used Klingons and not some superficially similar alien race. I think the LCS is just worried about potential implications.


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PostPosted: Thu May 12, 2016 10:09 am 
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The thing is, Paramount has always allowed fan-made movies to exist without trouble. Axanar is the first one they've sued and I think the reason is, it's looking to actually be really really good. It has a shitton of Star Trek veterans, actors and crew on board, all working on a voluntary basis. They've followed the no-profit model of previous fan productions, but amped up the quality. This has Paramount nervous.

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PostPosted: Tue May 17, 2016 11:24 pm 
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Even though I dislike copyright in general, I gotta say there are some arguments for conlangs themselves to be copyrightable works, or at least IP: natural languages aren't, of course, but there's a difference between natural things and artificial things vis a vis their ownership which is well established. After all, glucose isn't copyrightable because it's a naturally occurring molecule, but certain other molecules are, if not copyrightable outright, definitely subject to intellectual property protections and whatnot: a relevant difference is that while natural things that are good are not good because of someone's labour or even because of anyones actions and so there is no one that has earned the property (i.e. there's no one who deserves it) that molecule which the good people at pfizer discovered exists only because the workers of pfizer did labour, so of course the owners of pfizer own it [I mean, this is all within capitalist law, presumably]. And a conlang, just like a drug or a song, is a certain intangible thing which has the capacity of giving people pleasure and well being in the form of appreciating it and whatever, and since it's a good that someone has made, it's no different than a song.

another way fictional versions of things are legally different from real versions of things can be seen by analogy to characters: it can be argued that conlangs are, in fact, not languages but works of fiction in the sense that conworlds are not reals world but rather fictional accounts of fictional worlds and therefore the law should treat them not as languages or worlds, but as fictional products: just like what a novel is is a work of literature, even though its content tells of the actions of bob and phillip. while with languages or worlds the argument might not be quite clear, it's obvious when applied to people: bob and phillip are, legally speaking, not people, but fictional characters, and fictional characters are, something like trademarks: whatever they are, they're more like intangible products, and less like proper people like you and me: harry potter is not in fact an english boy able to do magic but, rather, he's a trademark of <i think> Joanne Rowling: regardless of the fact that someone can write a story that contains dicta about harry potter, harry potter isn't a person but a trademark, an intangible good, a piece of intellectual property. Similarly, it could be argued that klingon or dothraki are trademarks of CBS and HBO: even if in-fiction they are languages, in actuality they are works of art. I mean, if harry potter is not a person, why should the law treat dothraki as a language?

tldr: fictional characters conlangs and conworlds are depictions of things which do not exist and, qua depictions, they're themselves works and not respectively people nor languages nor worlds but rather pieces of IP which the law should treat as such, regardless of what it is the work depicts; whether the work is about a fictional english boy wizard, a fictional language spoken by aliens, or a fictional world inhabited by elves and dwarves, they all are works and as such IP.

damn, now that i think about it the case seems solid.

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PostPosted: Wed May 18, 2016 9:15 am 
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PostPosted: Wed May 18, 2016 1:43 pm 
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It does seem to me rather unfair that I could (hypothetically) go away and write a novel that makes extensive use of Verdurian, sell millions of copies, sell the film rights, publish a grammar of the Verdurian language, make quite a bit of money off that, etc. etc., and zompist wouldn't be entitled to a penny ...

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PostPosted: Wed May 18, 2016 7:08 pm 
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PostPosted: Thu May 19, 2016 3:29 pm 
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Languages are tools, not works. Applying restrictions on a constructed language for a work of fiction is like applying restrictions on the making of a saw, a hammer and nails for the purpose of making a chair. If nobody made the saw, the hammer or the nails, nobody would make the chair and all the people in the world would have to sit on the floor. I mean, it's a shitty analogue, but you get the point. You can write a book in English, Finnish, Turkish, Japanese, Mongolian, Hungarian, Basque, Burushaski, Lithuanian and Bulgarian, but the structure of the writing will change with every language and thus it will not be the same work of literature even if it has the same content if it's taken out of that context.

Nobody in Finland would understand a book written in Vietnamese even if it was the Finnish national epic (except for people who know Vietnamese, but that's a tiny minority), and anyone could claim that its content is entirely different from what its actual content is without anyone knowing that the content isn't what that person claims the content is. Language barriers have always been used for propaganda, ciphers have been used to obscure the content of written or spoken messages, etc. and a constructed language is no different. You could come up with a conlang and translate the Bible and Koran into it, then sell them as original works of literature and no one would ever know the truth except for those who know your conlang.

Personally, I think copyrights on literature in general shouldn't exist and people should simply appreciate each other's writing and if they wanted to copy concepts and content from one another, they shouldn't have to fear prosecution. It's all just text. Plagiarism is annoying, but when it comes to writing, it makes no sense to turn it into a legal shitstorm. Languages shouldn't be able to be copyrighted, not even constructed languages or works about constructed languages (or natural languages), as that would easily be a slippery slope leading to more legal restrictions on linguistic minorities.


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PostPosted: Fri May 20, 2016 10:17 pm 
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Even with copyright laws, a lot of people read/download illegal online versions of book that give no profit to the author. Without copyright laws, how will the author get money?

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PostPosted: Sat May 21, 2016 12:55 am 
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PostPosted: Sat May 21, 2016 2:39 am 
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But that's not what's at stake – it's people making money of something that you've done. I mean I sure as hell don't want someone making money with my conlang. In that sense I'd rather it was indeed copyrighted.

(On the other hand I agree that copyright is a bit of a shit thing in its current form, that's a different issue though)


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PostPosted: Sun May 22, 2016 3:18 pm 
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