Conlang Licensing: What I’d do

My recent post summarized, verbosely, what I’ve been reading about the intersection of intellectual property laws and conlangs.

Given the likely social and commercial potentials for conlangs I’d license a language like this:

Split Books from the Language

I’d distinguish between grammar, dictionary and corpus books I write for sale and the documents that define the language.  The former  would be subject to copyright law.  Unless I was of a radical bent in my view of IP laws, I’d want people to buy my books. I’d want people to not  reduce the sales of my books, say by copying them and giving them away for free.  If I was of a radical bent, I’d encourage my readers to copy and spread the work far in wide in the hopes that fame will eventually translate into fortune, but I might have a hard time finding a publisher that would be willing to work with the risk of free distribution providing no commercial benefit.

Mark Okrand, Simon and Schuster and Paramount Picture have demonstrated that this is a viable model for making money from a constructed language.  Now in the case of Klingon, except for the Klingon Language Institute, users of the language are in the same kind of limbo that fan fic writers are.  They are creating prohibited derivative works and maybe making some trivial amount of prohibited money off them.

The other model for making money from a constructed language is to embed it into a movie or novel.  Fortunately I’m not talented enough to write a commercially valuable novel.  But if I was, I wouldn’t want my novel to be the only description of the language.  I’d want the document describing the language to be a separate document with a separate license so that fans could use the language without having to derive their works from my hypothetical copyrighted novel.

Licensing the Language

I’d also make public and freely distributable the bare bones (or maybe even comprehensive) grammar and dictionary, subject to a creative commons license.  This is not unlike how software companies submit the definition of their language to a standards body.  The definition of the language obviously would have a strong family resemblance to the grammar & dictionary books I’d create for sale.  I’d imagine people would still buy the book because reading long texts online is a pain and quite possibly the for sale version would be a better text, while the freely distributable version might be rather technical,  incomplete or overly detailed.

Picking from Existing Licenses

The Creative Commons License lets one choose to include or omit several clauses regarding attribution, commercial use, derivatives and relicensing of the derivatives.

Personally, I’d require only attribution and share alike, because it would be useful to continually point users of the language back to the language ‘standard’

I think users of a language must be able to

- create derivative works of the CC licensed texts.  The derivative works that would be most encouraged would be texts written in the new language.  Of course some people would write grammars and dictionaries, which would be okay as long as they aren’t blatant rip offs of the textbooks I publish under copyright.

- create derivative works and make money off of them. For example, if I write a book in Esperanto, I don’t have to pay royalties to the Zamenhof estate. On the other hand I would have to get permissions and possibly pay royalties if I wanted to write a book in one of the Star War’s languages, like Huttese, Mando’a or Ewok.  More likely in the case of obscure conlangs, people will make money from selling google ads and amazon associate ads for their websites with conlang content.

If people primarily created content in the new language, I’d grow rich because the most authoritative text on the language would be mine.  If people primarily created competing variants of the language, more grammar guides and dictionaries, I may or may not become richer, it depends on how good my grammar guide is compared to others.  Using history as a guide, the original version of Esperanto is still the most popular and most variants on the Esperanto theme have remained obscure.

- copy and freely redistribute the bare bones grammar (or the exhaustively complete grammar, or the highly technical grammar). This would not be entirely unlike the distribution of Esperanto’s 16 rules.  Presumably, any books I write aside from the freely available ones would be much more usable, readable, etc, than the official definition.

What I wouldn’t do.

I wouldn’t trade mark the language.  Attempts to trademark Loglan seem to have failed–a language name becomes a generic name once people start using it.  If I really did want to have a trademark for a language–say “Foobarish”–I’d make up a name in the language suitable for the service I was selling, e.g. Frickafrack(tm) Publishing Services. I wouldn’t try to patent the language.  Languages probably can’t be patented.  I wouldn’t try to collect royalties for using the language.  I wouldn’t try to keep it as a trade secret and make fans sign non-disclosure agreements unless I really wanted to discourage people from using or knowing about my language, in which case it would be better for me to just keep it secret.

The Open Source/Public Domain Solution

There is an important if.  If I don’t give a hoot about the commercial potential for my language, don’t care about artistic control, then I’d forget what I just said and just put it in the public domain or put all my conlang related documents out under a generous creative commons license.  One has to remember that virtually all constructed languages have been quietly ignored, with the exception of a very small handful.

Wow, now after all that investigation of conlang’s and the law, maybe I should go invent myself a conlang!

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