Toki Pona: Conlangs and the law

As far as I know, there is no explicit license for Toki Pona, except the copyright on Sonja Kisa’s website and any other rights she might have under Canadian or international copyright law or other intellectual property(IP) laws that apply to written works.

UPDATE: [I am not a lawyer, this is not legal advice.  If you find yourself thinking or writing about the law, or medicine, or hair cutting without a license, please report immediate to the Department of Thought Crime for remediation.  We now return to BS'ing.

The point of this article, if it has one is that conlang writers and users are better served by explicit licenses than relying on the mind-bendingly confusing mess of unintelligible muck we call intellectual property law which can be arbitrarily used to harass, threaten or otherwise discourage people from using a language.]

Why should anyone care?

Out of the top conlangs, most are covered by some sort of property rights.  Conlangs are unique in that they frequently are the invention of an identifiable person.  Loglan and Quenya have been to court and fought over in the US.  I’m pretty sure Klingon has gotten as far as Paramount’s lawyers threatening legal action, but I only know what I’ve read online.  As soon as I’m a real lawyer (or a real academician) and have access to Lexis-Nexis I will cite real sources.

Language Intended Audience Owner
Esperanto Tourists, Internationalists No one, inventor died long time ago
Lojban Mathematicians, philosophers Used to be one guy, but it was re-invented to avoid restrictive licenses.
Ladaan Book readers Author & Publisher
Klingon Movie watchers Paramount Pictures
Mandol’a Book readers Author & Publisher & Lucas Films
Quenya The author, book readers Estate of JRR Tolkien

What rights are involved in using language?

Use. This is the right to use the language, at home, in public, on the airwaves, on paper, etc.

Name. The right to call it by it’s name.  This may seem obvious but Klingon could be subject to trademark law.

Modification. This is the right to proclaim new or different rules of grammar and the right to add new words.  Firstly, natural languages evolve, so there are serious practical challenges to denying users this right.  There are some practical challenges in trying to modify a language as well– there have been many attempts to create a better Esperanto, but of the people who do speak Esperanto, they have an incentive to stick to the standard.  Likewise, once a community of speakers has gotten used to one form or word, even the language inventor might not be able to rescind it.

The language inventor, may or may not be the standard bearer.  In the case of Quenya, the inventor is dead and Neo-Eldarin– the attempt of fans to complete the language– will probably become the standard.  As is the case in computer languages, the de facto standard is usually the most popular variant, not the de jure standard or the originator’s version.

Neologism and new rules of grammar are definitely a practical as well as  property right issue.  As people attempt to speak a language, if a word is missing it will be coined. If a grammatical construct is missing, it also will spontaneously form.  We can’t help that through error or intention our brains are wired to make language work for us, regardless to it’s original design.  If users do not have this right, then in practice they would have to avoid using it, except in a very careful, artificial fashion.

Commercialization.  This is the right to sell language learning materials, works written in the language, and so forth.  Commercialization could also mean the sale of the canonical works, that is, the defining materials made by the language inventor.

Ideally, these rights wouldn’t get in the way of each other, the same way that I can write a grammar of English and you can write a book in English and we don’t step on each other’s property right toes.  But if I invented English, then technically all books in English are derivative works subject to my copyright.

Risks Speakers Take in Using a ConLang

Explicit Licenses. If you agree to an explicit license agreement before using a constructed language, you might be sued for breach.  These licenses though often are contracts of adhesion (take it or leave it contracts) and have a higher standard to meet when it comes to enforcing one-sided terms.  Still, explicit licenses make it much easier for a language inventor win the argument to their liking.

Derivative work. If I write a grammar book for a conlang and you write a novel in that conlang, under copyright law I might be able to sue you for creating a derivative work.  If you create a dictionary or another grammar book, you also might be sued.

Fan Fiction. If I write a story and you write a conlang that is spoken by characters in the story, you might be subject to legal action under all the theories being used to fight fan fiction, such as trademark, trade dress, copyright and so on.


Explicit License. Getting a permissive license or explict permission to do what copyright law normally do is a good defense.  This is the best defense of all.

Relexification. Fans of Loglan relexified (picked new words) and created Lojban.  Lojban is still a popular conlang, as conlangs go, and Loglan has become obscure.   This is not a fun defense because it means you can’t use the popular language, you have to go invent your own that is different enough from the original that it doesn’t impinge on the original language owners property rights.

Inaction of the Author.  If an author doesn’t defend their property rights, then they can lose the right to assert them anywhere.  Actually, not sure what the rules are on abandoned copyrights, here is one discussion.  This is not a very good defense, however I am pretty sure a language creator can’t be selective in who they enforce your rights against, under copyright law one can’t let some people create derivative works but prohibit others.  So in that sense, if the language creator passively allow some users to write stories in their conlang, but tries to prosecute the first person to write a competing  grammar textbook or dictionary in your language, they might not be able to prevail. 

No $$$. Authors get actual damages for copyright violations.  If you conlang is commercially worthless, you may have to resort to community exhortation to get the community to respect how you think your IP should be treated.

Recommended Licenses for Conlangs

Creative Commons by Attribution, Share Alike.  Attribution provides a service to the users of the language, it helps point them to the standard.  If derivatives are prohibited, then one can’t really use the language without fear of legal action, especially if the language owner has deep pockets, like Lucas Films or Paramount Pictures.  If commercial use is prohibited, then no for sale magazines, newspapers or novels will be written in the conlang.

Share alike ensure that the language isn’t picked up by someone who wants to re-issue it under a more restrictive license and try to restrict people who are already using it. Share alike is also viral (the customers of your customers of your customers will have to follow them), so some people might be discourage from using a restrictive share alike license lest they impose burdensome terms on their users.

MIT Open Source License.  The MIT license was intended for software, which is kind of like grammar. The MIT license is a liability issue. If you write a conlang for air traffic controllers and they use it, leading to a horrible 50 airplane disaster due to a misunderstanding, the MIT license says the language inventor isn’t responsible.  A less outlandish scenario would be if flame wars among conlang hobbyists lead to fires and mayhem, the language inventor wouldn’t be responsible.

Copyright on Canonical Documents.  Copyright protect against wholesale copying (and many other things as listed above, like derivative works).  For example, the most likely source of money for an invented language will be selling grammar guides and dictionaries.  While prohibiting other people from writing derivative works (ie. competing grammar guides and dictionaries) would be counterproductive, letting some people copy the work of others, word for word and then profiting from it isn’t fair either.

Restrictive License.  I guess if someone really wanted to maintain control over their language, they could issue it under a restrictive license, with royalty fees, trade secret non-disclosure agreements, etc.  This be the kiss of death for that language as an object of interest for almost anyone except for the conlang inventor.  A language isn’t like a DVD of Star Wars, a copy of War and Peace, or a copy of MS Word.  Using licenses meant for those radically different products is counterproductive for all.

Conlang Success

Imho, for a conlang to minimally successful as a living language it needs:

  • Highly motivated speakers
  • People willing to create a corpus of interesting texts
  • A means for growth, such as a standards or legislative body (like the Althing in Iceland, which issues by decree what the new Icelandic neologism will be), or at least some guidance on how to coin new words and a comprehensive grammar guide.
  • Incentives to expend the effort to learn a language

Applying restrictive intellectual property licenses to a conlang helps guarantee a dead language status, as it removes incentives to use, commercialize, and improve communication in the language.

An explicit license for a conlang helps it become successful as living language because it can guard the authors property rights to the grammar and dictionary guides they write and possibly sell, but do not leave users of the conlanguages in a legal no-mans land where they are technically violating IP laws.

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4 thoughts on “Toki Pona: Conlangs and the law

  1. Interesting article, with some good questions and ideas! Amusing that one might theoretically not even be able to legally use the NAME of the Klingon language without permission.

    In practice, I suppose most conlang creators would be happy for anyone to create works in the language, and probably also learning materials about the language. Commercial languages like Klingon (maybe? I don’t know) would seem to be the exception in this case.

  2. I don’t think that Toki Pona will fit your description of neologisms.

    Most of the time when someone is trying to coin a word or make a new grammatical structure which they think is “missing”, they’re going contrary to the design of the language. They’re trying to bring the complexity to which they’re accustomed into a language which was invented to deliberately short-circuit that complexity by imposing simplicity and generalization.

  3. @Rick Miller: Yeah, but that is an argument of language design and maybe grammar. In my posts I was trying to address what people can legally get away with and what language owners can legally (and practically) prevent under conditions of copyright.

    It appears that some people somehow think noun + modifier combinations, which appear grammatical are somehow forbidden if they describe thoughts that aren’t in the general spirit of the language designer. Also, there are other people that think toki pona needs fewer words, more base words, etc.

    Copyright prohibits not only derivate works of that sort, but also writing and publishing a silly poem in toki pona which may be entirely grammatical and in the spirit of the language design and grammar.

  4. I think it’s wrong to treat conlangs differently, in a legal sense, than natural languages. I cannot copyright or trademark English or German or so on, so why should I be able to do so with an artificial language?
    OTH, I should be able to copyright dictionaries that I, myself, have assembled, just like someone can do for English or German, etc. I think that the Tolkien Estate has set a dangerous legal precedent by pursuing their rights the way they have. So far, I’m unaware of any actual litigation regarding the Klingon language by Paramount or Mark Okrand, but simply threatening litigation creates its own rather nasty precedent as well.

    Still and all, it is a very interesting subject to me, as are most intellectual property issues. On the one hand, I understand someone wanting to protect their creative work. OTH, I also can see the utter futility of trying to do so to the extent that many people do. Ideas want to be free. Like most things that want to be free, we limited, mortal humans cannot keep them locked up forever.