Can You Own a Language?

The Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre vs. Wikipedia

There is a language in Tasmania called Palawa kani that was created as a means of reconstructing past Aboriginal languages that have since been extinct.  Up to about a dozen Aboriginal languages are believed to have been included its creation, and its creators it seems are very keen on its preservation.  Palawa kani was constructed by the people of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, who have gone great lengths to protect the languages and culture of the Aboriginal people.  In fact, they even claimed ownership to Palawa kani and tried to request that Wikipedia remove its page under grounds of copyright infringement.

Photo by Benutzer Dachris

Photo by Benutzer Dachris

Wikipedia’s Response

Wikipedia has since rejected the request, but it nonetheless raises some intriguing questions.  In theory, can one own a language?  Should you be able to?  At what point do we draw the line when it comes to the ownership of ideas; concepts; principles; discoveries?  Well, Wikipedia’s statement in response was that the request was simply too broad, and that it would have “chilled free speech and negatively impacted research, education, and public discourse”.  But this is not good enough, because regardless of the social implications, we must look more closely to the specifics of the matter.

A Closer Look at Why

The real reason the request was denied is because one cannot own facts, and in language, the meanings of words are factual.  According to U.S. law, language is more a discovery than it is an invention, and discoveries and principles are not ideas, thus they are not ownable.  One may argue that when the source of a language can be traced back to a small group of people then it is more an invention than a series of facts.  But this entails that every word of the language was invented independently of any other languages.  Therefore, the argument doesn’t hold up for a language that was constructed via past languages for which we do not know the inventors.  In other words, Palawa kani is not an invention, it is simply a collection of reconstructions, and therefore the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre cannot legally claim ownership.

The Bottom Line

Okay, so reconstructed languages can’t be owned by their builders, just like construction workers can’t claim ownership of the skyscrapers they build.  The builder is simply not the architect, and with language, there are no architects because language is something that develops over long spans of time by generations of people.

What Can We Do For You?

So, unfortunately, you won’t be making your fortune off of language invention it seems.  Looks like you’ll just have to learn someone else’s language instead.  Think you’re up for the task?  Take one of our language tests to see what level we should start you off at.  If you’re looking for some more info you can contact us here.