Conlang Licensing

If you are a free spirit, anarchist, or mostly create personal or secret conlangs, then conlang licensing probably isn’t interesting. This article has a very specific audience.

Conlang licensing is an important issue for conlang creators, fans and business people in the traditional media fields. Without a way to monetize a conlang, some people in the world are not bothering to bring conlangs to market, to finish them, to publish them, etc. When conlangs are treated like a movie script, a book manuscript, then conlang creators could potentially lose control of their creations.

Finally, there are fans and derivatives works. Many fans first reaction to a conlang is that they want to improve on it and issue a somehow similar conlang. Other fans will want to start writing or even talking using this language. You’d think that at least the later would be welcome by conlang creators as a sign of success. But the ownership and rights of the fans to the material they wrote is kind of a legal fuzzy area.

What has everyone else been doing and is it working?

It’s not working. The most successful languages are movie and SF-Fantasy languages and these are being released under license that are harmful to fans and the language creators.

To answer this question well would take a lot of research to track down each claim of rights, license, for each language that is commercially valuable enough for licensing to matter. And that is part of the problem. As a fan or a media buyer, it’s not really clear what the license is. If I write a book in Na’vi or Dothraki, I would expect media buyers to be cautious about publishing it.

Esperanto is Public Domain, Na’vi is what ever Cameron says it is, Klingon what ever Paramout and Simon and Schuster say it is, Dothraki what ever HBO says it is. There are other conlangs that were notable because they were commissioned for pay, but are now obscure and not anymore, and so it their license. The controlled languages like Globish and Slovio are notable for having business models, but I don’t know if they break even or have revenues. Loglan famously had a business model and a very pro-creator license, but I’d be shocked if an example was still available on the web. In any case, the Loglan license & business model didn’t work out so well and probably is an example of what not to do.

There are many conlangs of questionable value bundled with something of unquestionable value, such as Boba Fett’s language, and various naming languages found in fantasy novels, etc. It’s fairly common to find sometimes wild and crazy claims about what rights the publisher or author has over these “languages”, but it’s hard to say how much of these books owe their commercial success to the conlang and how much to the book, music or game they are embedded in. These licenses tend to be very pro-copyright holder and imply that it is dangerous to attempt to finish the language or use it commercially or otherwise. Again, without the language part being worth much, it may not be much of a problem.

Why not just ignore the law?
That’s an option. Like I said above, if there is no money involved or if this is a solitary enterprise, there is no need to think about licensing or the law.

Why not straight copyright?
Ordinary copyright provides the strongest protections for the rights holder (i.e. the book or movie publisher) and the weakest protection for fans and the conlang creators. The creators of Klingon and Na’vi do not have nearly the rights would have if their languages had been licensed instead of sold outright.

Why not public domain?
Public domain offers no protections for the language creator, nor for any companies that would like to use the conlang commercially. On the other hand, public domain is a very fan friendly license.

Why not Creative Commons?
CC licenses are aimed at things like novels, photos and music. What constitutes a derivative work for these things is clear. In the world of conlangs, it isn’t clear if a CC license that prohibits derivatives is prohibiting derivative dictionaries, reference grammars or things written in such a language. A license, even if non-binding, that says “Please don’t add to the lexicon or reference grammar, but write anything you want in the language” is more clear than “All rights reserved” or “Creative Commons – No Derivs”

Why not GPL? (Or other open source license)
This almost would work if GPL wasn’t written so specifically for the peculiarities of software.

Why don’t you propose something?
I probably will, but I’m not a lawyer, can’t afford to hire one. Also, if you haven’t noticed, no one reads licenses. Licenses need to become part of the culture for them to be effective. So the first step in bringing a license into the world is to get people involved, in this case, fans, creators and media publishers.

Why not just ignore the copyrights and licenses, too?
To some extent you could, but in most places where conlangs are popular, they are rule of law societies. That means people are following the law even though they don’t have to. You don’t really need to pay for those candy bars or taxi rides– the odds of getting caught are low, but we do anyhow because true freedom from rules isn’t really what most people want.

If you are able to willfully ignore and violate the terms of a license of a conlang, then odds are the conlang isn’t commercially valuable. [Which makes me wonder what would have happened to Napster if it only circulated songs no one would have paid money for anyhow]

But I have strong political opinions and all this talk about law just makes me so angry and….
The beauty of licensing is that when you elect to use a license, you are choosing a license that reflects the way you want the world to be and in a small way are writing legislation. If you choose a license that protects the interests of the movie studio that wants to buy your conlang, so be it, pick a suitable license. If you want to protect the users of the conlang against movie studios, well you can do that too.

Didn’t case X conclusively prove that the law supports my intuitive sense of how things should be, i.e pro conlang creator, pro book publisher, pro conlang fan?
We’ll in the literature, the most often thing said is that the law regarding conlangs is poorly tested. I think it is poorly tested because there hasn’t been much money in the field. I think there hasn’t been much money in the field because there aren’t licenses that would motivate conlang creators to create, fans to use and movie and book publishers to buy and sell conlangs.

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