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There's an interesting post up on slashdot today about a legal battle between the Mapuche people of Chile and Microsoft. It seems that the tribal leaders of the Mapuche are unhappy about Microsoft working on a Mapudungan version of their Office suite of software.

Slashdot is a geek oriented web site that likes to track court cases against Microsoft. Cultural group ownership is a slightly left of field topic. The site generally advocates open source software and more liberal IP laws, so it was interesting to read the attitudes of the commenters on the main article.

UPDATE: 25/11/06
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Mark Liberman of Language Log weighs in.
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UPDATE: 27/11/06
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See a second post by Geoffrey Pullum at Language Log, and also see Jane Simpson's post for a thorough and very interesting analysis of the Australian situation.
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Casting a quick eye over the comments, some common themes come out:

  • this must be about money, Microsoft has lots of it!
  • these people are stupid... as soon as they have Microsoft word in their native tongue, their language will flourish
  • languages are in the public domain, they can't be "owned"
  • Here are a couple of choice quotes:

    If the Mapuche "win", Microsoft will promptly remove their language from Office, and it will be the end of that. Arguably the value of a language is largely proportional to how widely it is used. By having it removed from the software, the Mapuche are hurting only themselves, limiting their language's potential user base.

    and my favourite

    One thing's for sure -- remind me not to go to Chile with my camera. God forbid I should snap a photo and deprive these people of their right to control their cultural heritage or something. Hell; they they sound like the kind of people who might believe that I'm stealing their souls when I take a picture. I guess those beautiful llama photos will just have to wait till next year.

    Bearing in mind that this guy was possibly trolling...

    The results can be quite absurd when western ideas of ownership of intellectual property clash with the rest of the world. The idea of community based ownership of anything simply doesn't make sense in an individualistic society, and this is reflected in the form of our laws. We've seen a lot of these kinds of attitudes here in Australia in the backlash against court cases that are operating in the same general area of issues. Looking through the prism of American or Australian legal systems, I suppose this case looks totally absurd, but then slashdot has a broad readership:

    On the surface, it may seem quite absurd. However in TFA, I couldn't find any specific mention of the motives behind the Mapuche council's objection. Note that Mapuche leaders do not necessarily represent the will of every member of the tribe. However if we assume that there is support from the general populace, my guess would be that:

    1. The Mapuche and Andean people have a history of being lied to and manipulated by the Chilean government, usually in the interest of integrating them more within the European society and economy, often resulting in people being forcibly removed from their ancestral home territory so the land can be exploited for corporate gain. As a result there could be a general distrust for any type of corporation, especially those from the US. Mining and logging companies, for example, have been a major cause of displacement and environmental destruction, which has deeply affected the sentiments of native peoples toward capitalistic enterprise.

    2. There is a fear of the bastardization of their language by Microsoft incorporating and "standardizing" it. It could be that many are satisfied using Spanish language software from Microsoft.

    3. Remember that traditionally the native people of South America have a completely different world view from those of European descent. Society, religion, economy, technology are all perceived differently. It may be that the people actually don't want the opportunity of being exposed to this software in their native language. We may think it's "what's best for them," but really how can you or I decide that? The history of doing what we think is best for an indigenous culture of the Americas has been that of moving them into our world without really understanding that they may really want to keep their way of life, and "progress" as we often define it (e.g. technology) is really not beneficial from their perspective.

    To many, this may seem arrogant, or a grab for money. Without hearing a proper explanation of the motives behind this resistance, I feel nothing can be concluded. I think it's important to realize that other cultures view the predominant society from a different perspective and may see further integration as a threat to their way of living.

    and...

    This is a nice anecdote of a cultural clash in our globalized world. Viewed from afar, it may look silly and probably hopeless from a legal point of view, but in fact I believe they are right:

    "We feel like Microsoft and the Chilean Education Ministry have overlooked us by deciding to set up a committee (to study the issue) without our consent, our participation and without the slightest consultation," said Aucan Huilcaman, one of the Mapuche leaders behind the legal action. "This is not the right road to go down."

    Indeed. It seems pretty rude to decide such things in government and corporate offices in Santiago and the US, without asking the opinion of the authoritative people in that community. I wish they can extort a lot of money from Microsoft to settle the matter.

    I would also quite enjoy seeing the debates in the courts between some folkloric Mapuches and MS executives and their lawyers. If the Mapuches do indeed have the pride this story suggest, the ones who will look silly in this absurd confrontation will be the MS executives. And maybe they will even be scared? "The Mapuche are renowned for their ferocity", after all...

    They may not "own" their language, but I wish them well anyway...

    If I had to have a stab at this, I imagine this is more about recognition and community consultation rather than a money grab or claim of ownership (in the western sense) of their language. However, I'd be guessing that a court case like this is potentially a very powerful way of bringing their issues into the public sphere. I wish them the best of luck too.

    Comments

    As a retiree I now have the time to indulge mere interests, One of these is Latin American history, particularly the treatment of indigenous peoples by their European conquerors and their descendants. Although I knew only a little about the Mapuche people I had the opportunity last month to visit a Mapuche community near Valdivia, Chile. Today on a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio program I heard a Mapuche activist leader interviewed regarding the Microsoft lawsuit. This led to substanial web research. The points made in your piece regarding the arrogance of Microsoft and the Chiean Ministry of Education in undertaking the task of creating a computer version of Mapudugun, the Mapuche language, are well taken. In addition, as Mapudugun is an oral language there is no single written version. There are several written versions dating back to the Spanish would-be conquerers. Surely if there is going to be a computer version the Mapuche community should have significant input into which written version is used as a basis for the computer version. Also, the usefulness of the Microsoft product for the Mapuche people and the preservation of Mapudugun, is severely limited by the material poverty of the community. Such poverty precludes the presence of computers in Mapuche schools let alone Mapuche homes. If one looks into this controversy it is clear that the Mapuche are not against the creation of the computer version of Mapudugun in principle, but rather are upset about the lack of consultation with the community regarding how the task should have been carried out and what the implications of the computer version would be for their community and its aspirations. One last point, on my visit to the community I found the Mapuche to be as warm and welcoming to people coming in friendship as they are reputed to be ferocious to those who come with nefarious motives. When I sought permission to take a photgraph of three Mapuche women, they said yes with waves and big smiles - so your previous blogger need not worry about taking a picture as long as she asks permission with the same respect she would expect if a foreigner appeared and wanted to take her picture!

    This is a bit out of my scope, but this is totally backwards. Languages can't be "owned". What the...?

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