November 24, 2006

Language as property?

It's hard to know what is really going on in Chile, where Reuters tells us that "Mapuche tribal leaders have accused [Microsoft] of violating their cultural and collective heritage by translating the software into Mapuzugun without their permission" ("Chilean Mapuches in language row with Microsoft", 11/23/2006) . In particular, it's not clear from the article what the basis for the suit is, or what relief is being sought. The theory may be that a language is a piece of property belonging to (some representative body of) the people who speak it. 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).

I haven't seen much about these issues within the "free culture" movement -- but there are some links here, for example this (more details here). 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?

Posted by Mark Liberman at November 24, 2006 03:14 PM