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Assertion of intellectual property rights over languages is happening. Here's an FAQ in a public archive for Australian Aboriginal material (ASEDA, AIATSIS).

Q: Why do speakers restrict access to material in their languages?

A: Many speakers of endangered languages consider that their language is their intellectual property, passed down to them from their ancestors.  If it is made freely available to others, then their rights in that language can be diminished.  Usually they do not want strangers to use words and sentences of their languages in an inappropriate way, and want to be consulted prior to public use.

At Language Log, Mark Liberman has a couple of comments on Tom's recent post about this with respect to the Mapuche people's complaint against Microsoft, and following Geoffrey Pullum's post on the same topic.

If this idea were really to be accepted into the system governing the usual laws of property, I suspect that the consequences would surprise and displease many of those who start out supporting it . For some discussion, see "The Algonquian morpheme auction" (3/3/2004).

To the bad consequences... The "usual laws of property" is the soft spot. What are they? We're dealing here with people who by and large have customary ways of behaving, sometimes called customary law, rather than written statutes. Bringing customary law into a legal system is tricky (cf. the Australian Government report The Recognition of Aboriginal Customary Laws)—but possible.

Take the example of land held in common by Indigenous people. In Australia, recognising Aboriginal title to land required passing an Act (Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976) which allowed Aboriginal Land Trusts to "hold title to land in the Northern Territory for the benefit of Aboriginals entitled by Aboriginal tradition to the use or occupation of the land concerned". This in effect created a special land title, Aboriginal freehold title, one which is owned in common by the members of the Aboriginal Land Trust. The land held by the trust cannot legally be bought or sold.

A similar process could be developed to look after property rights held in common for languages. So the bad consequence mentioned in "The Algonquian morpheme auction"Disney owns my language! — could be blocked. But the costs would be huge, both in developing the process, and then later, since bringing customary law into the seductive embrace of the state will probably just fatten the litigious and their helpers (as noted in an earlier Language Log post).

Mark Liberman then asks:

Here's a question: if the use of a language has to be licensed by the tribal elders, can they withhold this permission from someone who wants to criticize them, or to say something else that they don't approve of?

I'm guessing he's thinking of a group withholding permission from an outsider to use their language to criticise them. In the Australian Indigenous societies I know, people have the unquestioned right to speak the languages accepted as their parents' languages. So "tribal elders" aren't on about licensing kids to speak their own language. But outsiders? Well, I can't see why Indigenous communities couldn't have that right. Just as copyright laws allow a map-maker or a publisher to refuse a critic permission to republish a map. Or trespass laws allow me to prevent a critic from coming onto my land, let alone erecting a billboard on it criticising me (however justifiably).

Three differences are important here - a difference between rights held by an individual and rights held by a group, a difference over which rights can be traded and which are inalienable, and a difference as to whether a right-holder has the right to license other people to enjoy some part of that right. Individuals—so Australians, North Americans and some other groups believe—have rights to control access to land and re-publication, and to buy and sell those rights, or licences to them. We allow people to assert rights to some words as trademarks, and to license others to use the trademarked words. As for groups, leaving aside companies and trusts which act as pseudo-individuals, we (well, most of us) think it reasonable for groups—our governments—to assert a basic right to control access to our countries (sovereignty), and we're pretty wary about selling off this right.

Some Indigenous groups don't recognise individual rights to trade in land, or to trademark words, or to sing another person's song. They do assert rights as a group to control access to their land and to their languages, but probably not to trade those rights. Sovereignty over languages as well as land. But in actual practice, probably the best way of getting rights over language recognised (unless money is involved, as it can be) is to rely on what customary law relies on - politeness, and educating outsiders as to what is polite. Which is the flipside of Mark Liberman's comment "Whatever the outcome, linguists' best protection against such problems is to be solidly based in the speech communities in question".


Very interesting defense of the possibility of having property rights over languages. I wonder, however, if the subject of that right can be the group, to the exclusion of the individual. It is obvious that an “outsider” cannot speak a language if he or she does not learn it from at least one individual that speaks it. And once s/he learns it, why would s/he be considered an outsider anymore (provided that things like racial exclusion are not in your bag of reasons)? Furthermore, things could get even more complicated. I bet, for instance, that Microsoft did not ask its employees to learn Mapudungu but it hired at least one native speaker of Mapudungu (not an outsider) in order to translate Windows to that language. I think we all can agree that that translation must count as that speaker’s utterances. How come does anybody could have rights over the possibility that a person speaks his/her own language? Language cannot be equated to land. It is easy to see why could be dangerous to grant individual rights to sell pieces of a collective land (at the end, it could destroy a community). But it is hard for me to see what the risks are with language. At the end, those claims are just a manifestation of prescriptive discourse, which have always had a magical flavor (in both Western and Non-Western societies), and whose final goal is to install a tool for the negotiation of power, that is, a political tool. And with respect to indigenous people, that could even be a good thing, but we need to address the actual political and social motivations (their call for recognition and empowerment) rather than falsify the nature of language.

Language as property: In some societies the right to speak for a language is deemed a property that is inherited from your parents - along with rights to use particular tracts of country and associated creation stories and songs. So even if I learned to speak Warumungu really well, I'd still be an outsider, because I have not inherited the right to the language. It would be another matter if I were properly 'adopted' and lived in a Warumungu family and took on the rights and responsibilities that come with adoption.

Bound up with language as property are the ideas of respect for ownership, and denial of access to the language. Respect seems to matter to speakers of many small languages, regardless of how strong the language is. It's their language; they have the right to say how it's spelled, what the words of the language are, when and where it's used in public. Denial of access is far less common—probably because mostly people want to use languages they know well to talk to other people in. Perhaps the most famous group who have denied a type of access to their language are the Pueblo Indian group who speak Towa (Jemez) and who do not want their language written down. In Australia my impression is that when languages are strong and children speak them, the speakers usually welcome outsiders learning their languages, and encourage them to do so (as Raymattja Marika has done by producing Yolngu language materials). When a language is moribund and is not needed for communication, then descendants of speakers may be upset about what they have lost, and resent outsiders learning it. And in such situations passions rise if they believe outsiders are making money from their language—e.g. non-Indigenous tour guides showing tourists Indigenous places, and providing Indigenous names for plants and animals, and sharing Indigenous traditional ecological knowledge with the tourists.

Groups always have trouble with balancing the rights of individuals and the rights of groups. In any society some individual could go against the wishes of the group and do something that the group doesn't approve of - e.g building an unapproved extension to a house, or teaching outsiders a language. And there's always a problem determining who the group is.

I recall a situation, years ago, when a friend of mine, a professor of Urdu and Hindi in the United States, received death threats for teaching a class in Arabic language. That's it, no assertion of insults to the Prophet or anything, just that it was a sacred language and no non-Muslim should be allowed to teach it.

More to the point, the only people who would use Microsoft's translation would be speakers of the language, so clearly speakers of the language have complete control over whether it is used or not. It cannot destroy the language, it can't even reduce the use of another variety of the language, any more than the availability of a Spanish version of the software does. If the community is worried that individuals would adopt this unapproved version of the language, aren't they just as worried that individuals would adopt Spanish or English? I fail to see how any harm is done to the language or the culture or to any property rights, individual or collective, in either.

This issue has also just been taken up over at Savage Minds

Thanks Kimberly - and just now I saw a posting about it on Debitage.

Mark Liberman has just posted again on this topic.
Jane adds, Thanks! and there is also discussion in Debitage

I think some languages are definitely worth keeping a secret.

Take Yidish and the Jews for example.

In the holocaust they spoke Yidish.

Elad - I think you missed the point - I don't agree that this is debate is about keeping languages secret - it's about preventing them being misappropriated and commercialized.... from "chill out" albums that have native-american chanting to the last couple of Mel Gibson films that have both been done in native or historical tongues - there's obviously money to be made!

Mark Liberman said it correctly. Spoken languages fall under a public domain... this is ridiculous.

It is sad that it would come to the point where people would want intellectual property rights to languages.

It would be hard to police the issue, and would discriminate against those who could not afford the licensing fees. For example, if there was a training video that taught first aid, would poor countries not be able to view it because they were unable to afford the licensing fees in their own language? I would not be happy if my son died because no one could be trained in CPR because no one could afford the licensing fees in our country.

This idea just seems so wrong. Whatever happened to freedom of speech?

But could ownership of languages not help them to die out???

Do you have any links for more info on this?


Thanks for sharing your experience on language as a intellectual property or one could say copyright. This is incredible but somewhat understandable from their perspective. The less outsiders understand, the more isolated they will be. They do not want to join the mainstream society and since it is a free world to some extent, they have a right to protect their spoken language. As the internet grows and grows, there will be more bi-lingual and tri-lingual people in the world and not just in Europe. speaking of Europe and specifically Italian, there are some good resources about acquiring a new language by immersion, in essence "study abroad" that may be interesting to you. They include Italian Courses in Florence, Milan, Rome Italy and more language courses such as French, German, Arabic, Portuguese, Chinese, Greek in Europe, Asia, and South America. Endangered languages are available mainly online . You can hear and learn more than 12 languages on a electronic pocket language translators, although they are not indigenous ones. For that you may just have to travel to the outback and for indigenous language learning.

I personally think that languages should be public property.

Why should I not be able to learn other languages and be open to other cultures?

Keeping a language private would be withholding culture from the world.

IMHO language is nothing to do with IP rights, it is the content that should be the concern.

i think be good to be true, in real word all native lang are dissapearing, capitalist world are ended tradditions.

Language is a powerfull tool. Not anyone should be allowed to learn just any language. There have been nations that relied on their language to save them from extinction - meaning that sometimes a language is all that sets a nation apart from a different one.

Very useful and impressive topic and information. However I agree to Jimmy. Spoken languages fall under a public domain... this is ridiculous. However if we discuss this thread further, we may bring out the better openion out of it.



Keeping a language private would be withholding culture from the world.

Good luck finding a court to uphold property rights for any language. If it ever came to that, would it be possible to find an advocate for doing the samae with the English language in Australia???

A minor point (but one that is important to those of us from Western Australia) is that it was not the whole continent that was claimed at that time, but only the eastern half (well, two-thirds). The western part was formally claimed some time later (1829?). Growing up in WA I recall it was a common complaint that ‘Australian Day’ was actually ‘Eastern States Day’.

No doubt spoken languages come under public property and this is the only way to deal them1

Language is public property, Of course this is the true, because any who is interested to learn a new language he can learn. There is no any restriction in front of any that some one can't learn this language. Its all depend on their own taste.

Jane Simpson,

Brilliant post indeed!

I agree to Tina.

Spoken languages fall under a public domain.

Thank you for sparing your time to write all this in detail and we hope to study the new posts soonest possible.

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