As anthropologists move towards more and more open models of sharing knowledge it will be important to be aware of the potential conflicts this might cause for indigenous groups who wish to restrict access to that knowledge. We’ve all heard of individual words being trademarked, but what if indigenous people wish to restrict use of their entire language?
A great discussion is emerging over at the blog Transient Languages & Cultures, where Jane Simpson has summed up some of the central issues in an ongoing series of posts over at Language Log, together with significant additional commentary of her own:
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.
The one case I’ve heard of before is that of the Hopi. The Hopi Cultural Preservation Office “sought to enact a Tribal ordinance that ‘the Hopi language shall be for the exclusive use of the Hopi people'” as discussed by Peter Whiteley. (I think there is another well known article on this, but I can’t recall where I read it.) Another related paper is “Protecting Traditional Knowledge and Expanding Access to Scientific Data” (PDF) by Eric Kansa (of the Digging Digitally blog), together with Jason Schultz (EFF) and Ahrash Bissell (Duke). Hopefully we will eventually create a page devoted to the topic over at the Open Access Anthropology Wiki.