Are conlangs intellectual property? Can they be copyrighted?

The second question is a little more complicated. Does a certain level of public, common usage cause a conlang to become public domain, even when the language was created by a select group?

I know there has been some debate over the Klingon language regarding this, especially since there are a few people who were raised with Klingon as a secondary natural language. But I'm not certain about its legal status.

For the purposes of location, consider the US generally. If a state is needed, in California.


The short answer is that there are no mechanisms in place by which one could credibly copyright, patent or otherwise secure ones language. Works you create about the language (such as a grammar document or a poem) of course fall under the same copyright laws as any other works of their kind and as such generally belong to you, but your language as of now is just as copyrightable as English.

For a long answer, I recommend watching this talk by Sai (founder of the LCS) about exactly this topic.

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  • So then, for example, suppose you decided to write a poem in Sindarin. There would be no issues with publishing it as your own work? – celticminstrel Feb 28 '18 at 3:54
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    There is nothing legally enforcable stopping you from doing so, but it’s still plausible that the tolkein family would sue you just out of principle. How that would go is of course in the air. There’s very little precedent (only some lawsuit regarding klingon) – Adarain Mar 1 '18 at 15:15
  • @celticminstrel The LCS' position would be that if you write an original poem in Sindarin — not quoting any text of JRRT, just using the language — then it's 100% yours. We are likely willing to defend that position in court. – Sai May 9 '18 at 9:05

Everything you make up is your intellectual property, but that does not mean you could decide who gets to use it and how. Programming languages are actually quite similar in this regard. We need to distinguish several concepts about a conlang:

  • name
  • dictionary
  • grammar
  • texts

Inventing and naming the language, effectively means you are entitled to decide what counts as $language and what does not. You probably could even register a trademark for it in some jurisdictions. You cannot stop people from extending the dictionary or deriving a dialect, but they could probably not legally call it $language without your approval. They could still use a slightly different name even incorporating the original one, e.g. "$dialect of $language", and you could do nothing about it. (For instance, Commonmark initially was called Standard Markdown and was renamed after protests from the author of Markdown and coiner of that term, but this happened out of courtesy not out of legal obligations, and variants with names like Github Flavored Markdown or Markdown Extra remain unaffected.)

The dictionary most likely is subject to database laws which differ significantly between jurisdictions and can be rather strange. I remember a case where it was legal to read, manually type and publish a copy of a printed phone register, but the redistribution of a computer scan was prohibited. It's best to treat the word list as public domain.

The grammar is much like an algorithm in mathematics. That means it usually cannot be patented or otherwise protected.

Texts in or about the language are of course still copyrighted intellectual property of their authors. The inventor or maintainer of the language has no say in this.

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  • At first I thought this seemed pretty comprehensive, but then I realized it doesn't even touch on constructed writing systems... (Still a useful answer though.) – celticminstrel Mar 2 '18 at 2:34
  • You are right. I assume conscripts are mostly subject to the same laws that apply to typefaces and fonts, which differ significantly among jurisdictions. In some cases they border on logos, e.g. the popular emblem of the Klingon Empire might never make it into Unicode proper while the normal pIqaD letters some day may. – Crissov Mar 3 '18 at 0:43
  • No trademarks for language names in the US. Decided by the Lojban v Loglan case. – Sai May 9 '18 at 9:06

I would say yes. If for example you own the copyright to a dictionary and a grammar guide for words that you made up, then people can only use those words within the "fair use" guidelines of copyright law. So they could write an original poem using your language without your permission, but would need to provide citations to your copyrighted works. But no one would be able to read or understand the poem unless they also had access to the copyrighted works, which would quickly stifle any use of the language. If you want as many people as possible to learn and speak your language, then the fastest way to disseminate the language would be by releasing all materials into the public domain so that they are freely accessible to everyone.

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  • Can you please edit this to add some quotes and references to back up your argument. :) – curiousdannii Feb 19 '18 at 11:17
  • I should add that I am not a legal expert by any means. If you really were concerned about copyright and fair usage of your works, you should consult a lawyer for legal advice. – Nicole Sharp Feb 19 '18 at 11:21
  • But the case of Loglan vs. Lojban is a good example. Loglan was copyrighted, which spurred the creation of Lojban instead. – Nicole Sharp Feb 19 '18 at 11:23
  • That was a trademark allegation, not copyright. And the result of that case was that the trademark was invalidated. IIRC the decision to split names was part of a settlement. – Sai May 9 '18 at 9:07
  • Also, fair use (in the US) does not require citation to the original. It's polite and standard to do so, but not a part of the legal fair use factors. – Sai May 9 '18 at 9:09

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