Inquire with lawyers Star Trek is a bit like asking bike mechanics what their favorite beer is. Even though it’s not their field, they have many clear, well-thought-out opinions on the subject. One day last month, I put out a quick call for Trek-minded attorneysand they poured in. Within minutes, this actual email message landed in my inbox.
I suddenly had five people emailing me to chat with you! I claim to be a lawyer who describes himself primarily as a Starfleet officer. Can I help?
Christian W. Waugh
Waugh Law, PA
Sent from my Starfleet Communicator
I must add that this man goes by the handle @Admiral Waugh on Twitter. I knew I had accomplished something great.
As a Trek fan – I’m a kid of the 80s, TNG was my first foray into the universe – and someone who regularly covers legal issues, I wanted to honor the series’ 50th anniversary with a look at the legal issues at about playing Star Trek. Sure, entire books have already been written on this topic, but this one went boldly terra nulls for the undersigned.
From copyright to civil law
After watching several episodes (research, I swear!), I was reminded how many Picard-as-counsel episodes there are. Court-style procedures are not a rarity in the various series and films.
According to a recent panel discussion at Comic Con (SDCC) titled “Star Trek: Where Lawyers Boldly Go,” there are a number of signature legal-themed episodes ranging from TOS “Court Martial” to TNG’s “Measure of a Man,” to DS9’s “Tribunal” to Company‘s “Judgment.” I should add that this panel included several legal celebrities such as Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, California Supreme Court Justice, and former U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul Grewal, now a vice president and attorney for Facebook.
The point is that there are a lot legal ways to go down in the Star Trek universe, and some even have direct parallels to our own time. The current case of Naruto vs Slater (currently before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals) is about whether a non-human (in this case a macaque) can own the copyright to a photograph. Almost exactly the same question is explored in Traveler‘s ‘Author, Author’, in which the Doctor, a holographic medical program, tries to assert intellectual property rights on a holonovel.
In the Star Trek universe, the most important ‘law’ is, of course, more of an overarching policy and a social norm. It’s called the Prime Directive, and interpreting its meaning is one of the main concerns of show characters and fans alike. Joshua Gilliland, one of the organizers of that SDCC panel, pointed out to me during a conversation over coffee that that in itself is very lifelike. “What is law but a civil contract about how we are going to behave?”
Bend the rules
In canonical trek, the Prime Directive is never explicitly mentioned in its full, legalistic glory. Introduced as a concept in the 21st episode of TOS, “Return of the Archons”, it is a commandment of the highest moral authority not to interfere with the natural cultural and scientific development of a civilization, especially those that are pre-warp . That’s a pretty tough rule to follow, given how hard it is to define a concept like “natural cultural and scientific development,” let alone loaded terms like “civilization” and “interference.”
So this was the exact question I put to the best human legal minds I could find:
Could the Prime Directive really work as law?
In 2016, how should we think about United Nations law or whatever our existing equivalent is, as precursors of an interstellar directive (should we even think of it as a law? Or just a signpost?) to the Prime Directive?
Here on early 21st century Earth, the Prime Directive probably most closely resembles something like the Law of the Sea – a “law” that almost every country on Earth follows – that sets out rights and standards for the use of the world’s oceans and waterways. (Interestingly, the United States essentially accepts the Law of the Sea, but has not formally ratified it.)
“The Prime Directive is very similar to international law in that it is often not enforced depending on who is breaking it,” Greg Della Posta, a rental attorney in Buffalo, New York, emailed Ars. “Famous captains, or those in important circumstances, are usually pardoned, just as great nations generally do not face consequences from international courts for breaching treaties.”
In short, if international law doesn’t always work well in the 21st century, is there any hope that interstellar law could work in the future? Many court officers seemed to reject the idea of a truly universal law binding the members of the planet, much less anything approaching the United Federation of Planets.
“The concern is probably not a military takeover, but communication that violates Prime Directive because it does not require unrealistic interstellar travel,” wrote Scott Moss, a law professor at the University of Colorado. He wondered what would happen if interplanetary communication began before Earth was united under one government. a highly religious regime like Iran sees the need to spread a religious message to other planets by giving a less advanced civilization the communication technology necessary to share (or impose) theological views?” Moss wondered.
Moss continued his thought experiment:
And if the threat is interstellar communication, which is much cheaper than interstellar travel, what’s stopping rogue tycoons from freely communicating whatever quirky messages catch their eye? A nation could, of course, criminalize dangerous activities, but (a) such a ban would in the United States require the government to show actual harm to limit speech, and I can’t wait for the First Amendment case on Donald Trump, Jr ., who violates the US Prime Directive by communicating his family’s greatness to the stars, and (b) a rogue magnate in a country that does not enforce a Prime Directive appears to have free rein.