Enlarge / Kirk and Spock wear nifty outfits in order to contemplate the concept of the Prime Directive, which was first introduced in the episode “Return of the Archons.”Paramount
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Asking lawyers about Star Trek is a bit like asking bike mechanics what their favorite beer is.
Even if it’s not their area of professional expertise, they have lots of clear, well thought-out opinions on the subject. One day last month, I put out a quick call for Trek-minded attorneys, and they flooded in. Within minutes, this actual e-mail message landed in my inbox.
I suddenly had five people e-mailing me saying I had to chat with you! I aver that I am a lawyer who defines himself first and foremost as a Starfleet officer. May I help?
CWWChristian W. WaughWaugh Law, P.A.
Sent from my Starfleet Communicator
I should add that this guy goes by the handle @AdmiralWaugh on Twitter.
I knew I had hit on something great.
As a Trek fan—I’m a child of the 1980s, TNG was my first foray into the universe—and someone who reports frequently about legal issues, I wanted to honor the 50th anniversary of the series with a look at the legal issues at play across Star Trek. Sure, entire books have already been written on this subject, but this was boldly going into terra nullis for yours truly.
From copyright to civil law
After reviewing various episodes (research, I swear!), I was reminded of how many Picard-as-counsel episodes there are.
Court-style procedurals are no rarity across the various series and movies.
According to a recent panel discussion at Comic Con (SDCC) entitled “Star Trek: Where Lawyers Boldly Go,” there are a number of landmark legal-themed episodes ranging from TOS “Court Martial,” to TNG’s “Measure of a Man,” to DS9’s “Tribunal,” to Enterprise’s “Judgment.” This panel, I should add, included various legal luminaries such as California Supreme Court Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, and former US Magistrate Judge Paul Grewal, now a vice president and lawyer for Facebook.
Enlarge / Some legal issues raised in Star Trek have direct relevance to today.
The point is there are many legal roads to go down in the Star Trek universe, and some even have direct parallels to our own time.
The ongoing case of Naruto v.
Slater (currently before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals) involves the question of whether a non-human (in this case, a macaque) can hold copyright of a photograph. Nearly this exact same question is explored in Voyager’s “Author, Author,” where the Doctor, a holographic medical program, tries to assert intellectual property rights over a holonovel.
In the Star Trek universe, of course, the most important “law” is more of an overarching policy and social norm.
It’s called the Prime Directive, and interpreting its meaning is one of the major preoccupations of show characters and fans alike.
As one of the organizers of that SDCC panel, Joshua Gilliland pointed out to me during a conversation over coffee, that in itself is quite true to life. “What is law but a civil contract as to how we’re going to behave?”
Bending the rules
In canonical Trek, the Prime Directive is never explicitly stated 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 to not interfere in the natural cultural and scientific development of a civilization, particularly those that are pre-warp.
That’s a pretty difficult 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 “interfere.”
So this was the precise question that I put forward to the best human legal minds I could find:
Could the Prime Directive actually work as a law?
How should we, in 2016, think about United Nations law or whatever our existing equivalent is, as being precursors to an interstellar directive (should we even think of it as a law? Or merely a guidepost?) to the Prime Directive?
Here on early 21st-century Earth, the Prime Directive is probably most similar to something like the Law of the Sea—a “law” that nearly every country on Earth follows—establishing rights and norms for the usage of the world’s oceans and waterways. (Interestingly, while the United States essentially accepts the Law of the Sea, it has not formally ratified it.)
“The Prime Directive is a lot like international law in that it is often not enforced depending on who breaks it,” Greg Della Posta, a tenancy lawyer in Buffalo, New York, e-mailed Ars. “Famous captains, or ones in important circumstances, are usually forgiven, much like large nations generally don’t face consequences from international courts for breaking treaties.”
In short, if international law doesn’t always work all that well now in the 21st century, is there any hope that an interstellar law could work in the future? Many officers of the court seemed to dismiss the idea of a truly universal law binding the members of the planet, much less something approaching the United Federation of Planets.
“The concern probably is not military takeover, but communication that violates the Prime Directive, because that doesn’t require unrealistic interstellar travel,” Scott Moss, a law professor at the University of Colorado, wrote. He wondered what would happen if interplanetary communications began before Earth united under one government. “What if a highly religious regime like Iran sees a need to spread a religious message to other planets by giving a less advanced civilization the communications technology necessary to share (or impose) theological views?” Moss wondered.
Moss continued his thought experiment:
And when the threat is interstellar communication, which is much lower cost than interstellar travel, what stops rogue tycoons from freely communicating whatever idiosyncratic messages strike their fancy? A nation can, of course, criminalize dangerous activity, but (a) such a ban would, in the United States, require the government to prove actual harm in order to restrict speech, and I can’t wait for the First Amendment case about Donald Trump, Jr., violating the American Prime Directive by communicating his family’s greatness across the stars, and (b) a rogue tycoon in a country not imposing a Prime Directive would seem to have free rein.
Looking back to the 17th century
Given how difficult it would be to control rogue nations from violating something like the Prime Directive, it might be truly impossible to rein in private companies.
“I think it’s more likely that future interstellar craft will say ‘Musk Enterprises’ ‘Virgin Galactic’ or ‘Putin Enterprises’ on the hull,” Marc Randazza, a well-known First Amendment lawyer based in Las Vegas, e-mailed. “So let’s say a private enterprise sends its spacecraft off to conduct a mining mission or an exploration mission, one might think that Earth-based governments would say that they have jurisdiction over their citizens who engage in interstellar or interplanetary or intergalactic exploration and commerce.
Think of the Dutch East India Company, or other enterprises that sent people off from Europe to colonize other areas.
They were still ostensibly under there on the flag and could be punished for violations of the law of their land once they returned.
But what jurisdiction was there out there really?”
Companies and nation-states might sign agreements not to violate the Prime Directive, but Randazza argued it would lack an enforcement mechanism.
“Unfortunately, I think the only existing force strong enough to get us out there is greed and capitalism,” he said. “But once those forces land somewhere, it’s already fucked.
I think if you want to look forward into the future to see what the exploration and exploitation of space is going to look like, you shouldn’t be looking at Star Trek.
I mean if you want to dream and aspire, that’s definitely the place to look.
But if you want reality, take a look at Africa in the 1800s coupled with Blade Runner—and that is me being optimistic.”
Live long and prosper
Other lawyers explained Star Trek‘s legal system as a reflection of the era when the series was conceived. Recall that this was a time of great post-war optimism and 1960s grooviness.
Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek’s creator, was a World War II Army fighter jet pilot from the age of 21 to 28. Roddenberry went on to become a cop with the Los Angeles Police Department.
It was only after years in the law-and-order professions that he switched careers to write his first TV show, The Lieutenant. Airing in 1963, the show featured many as-yet-unknown actors, including Leonard Nimoy.
“[Roddenberry] lived in a Cold War environment where any and every developing nation was valued almost exclusively as a pawn in the conflict between capitalism and communism,” Ashley Meyers, a personal injury lawyer in California, e-mailed. “This background makes the centerpiece philosophy of the show unsurprising.
For someone who experienced both the horrors of war first-hand and who saw the damaging impact of the First World’s ‘benevolent’ interference in the Third World, the Prime Directive makes perfect sense.”
In the context of the series, the Prime Directive is violated (or perhaps “bent”) in arguably justifiable scenarios. Meyers cited TOS’ “A Private Little War,” where Kirk returns to a planet that he last knew as an Eden-like paradise. However, upon his return, he finds that the Klingons are disrupting the balance of power by providing the “Villagers” with flintlock long guns, and they are attacking the “Hill People.” Kirk decides that the way to restore this power is to similarly provide firearms to the Hill People.
“Some sort of corrective measures would have to be the first step toward any meaningful attempt to model international law after the Prime Directive,” Meyers concluded. “Realistically, an objective committee could act like a jury and evaluate what would be necessary for every ‘pre-warp’ nation on Earth to be made whole. What would restitution for colonialism, Cold War proxy wars, and modern interference look like? Restitution damages are never easy to calculate but it can be done.”
Inga Fyodorova, a corporate lawyer with Steiner Leisure, agreed.
She told Ars that while “humans find great challenge in non-interference,” she remains an optimist. “Given the current state of our international relations, I find it unlikely that we would succeed, but the Trekkie idealist in me wants to believe that we as humans have the capacity to tap into some inherent non-judging, cooperative spirit and hug it out as a planet,” she wrote. “Consequently, we would live long and prosper.”