Author Archive

Professor Austin and copyright

Peter Austin has raised his voice on this blog to ‘protect [his] legal rights and those of the Dieri people who have contributed to [his] knowledge of their language’ (source). He suggests that the PanLex project is guilty of ‘theft’ for using, without citation, data from a Dieri-English word list contained in his 1981 grammar of the Dieri language.1 He also implies that the PanLex project should not use the data without his permission.2

I think Austin ought to clarify exactly what he believes he owns and how he would justify the claim that it has been stolen. There are two aspects to copyright, commercial rights and moral rights. Austin has indicated that he is not interested in receiving royalties for the use of his data (source), although he would presumably not want anyone to make money from it (except his publisher, Cambridge University Press). There seems to be little danger of that, anyway: although I am not particularly familiar with the PanLex project and its financial backers, the administering Utilika Foundation appears to be a non-profit organisation (source).

Austin seems to be more concerned with asserting his moral rights. Under the Berne Convention, the main international copyright treaty that specifically mentions the moral rights of authors, the author of a work has

…the right to claim authorship of the work and object to any distortion, mutilation or other modification of, or other derogatory action inrelation to, the said work, which would be prejudicial to his honor or reputation.

The PanLex project seems to have denied Austin his right to be recognised as the author of the word list by not providing a citation to his grammar, in which it originally appeared. This lack of citation appears to be a genuine oversight, however. The project maintains an extensive list of resources they are using in compiling their database. Although Austin’s 1981 grammar is not on the list, his and David Nathan’s online Kamilaroi/Gamilaraay dictionary is (a fact that Austin does not mention in his blog post). There is the possibility that the PanLex project has acquired the Dieri data through a secondary source that is listed but which does not acknowledge Austin’s original work properly.

The PanLex project clearly does not claim to be the original collector of the data and is not out to appropriate other people’s data with no acknowledgement, which is what Austin implies in his blog post. However, the project’s referencing definitely leaves something to be desired. As to possible distortion of Austin’s work that could be ‘prejudicial to his honor or reputation’, that is a separate issue about which he has not yet expressed an opinion.

What exactly is Austin claiming ownership over? Presumably not the entire Dieri language, but just the data contained in his word list. But what exactly is the data represented in his list? Is it just the equivalencies he has established between the Dieri and English words? It should be noted that raw data is not covered by copyright, although a particular representation of it is. This is a fact that Austin is aware of.3 The particular record of the equivalencies in his list is therefore protected by copyright. But we could also ask whether the list really is a creative work. A lot of effort certainly goes into acquiring and organising the knowledge required to produce such a list, but it could be considered merely sweat of the brow – that is, a work of diligence rather than creativity. If so, it would not be protected under US copyright law, but it would be under European copyright laws.4

Is Austin also claiming ownership over the actual words, as represented in his orthography? He uses the spelling of the Dieri word wadaŋaɲɟu to identify its origin in his book and the orthography is of his own devising. As a non-tangible system the orthography itself cannot be copyrighted, but perhaps particular instatiations of it could be. Should Noah Webster be cited every time someone writes the word ‘color’, because Webster was the first to propagate this spelling in his published work?

It should be pointed out that the PanLex project is not simply a copy of Austin’s 1981 word list. It is a new work that incorporates material from a large number of sources. It is what would be considered a ‘derivative work’. Under UK copyright law, the jurisdiction where Austin’s book was published and where he now resides and works, permission does appear to be required to use copyrighted material in a derivative work,5 although there are some possible exceptions where only excerpts are used. It could be argued that the Dieri words that appear in PanLex are excerpts from Austin’s book. They certainly do not represent a reproduction of the entire work. There may be no need to get permission in this case. But this is one for a judge to decide.

What are the potential implications of Austin’s assertion of ownership of the Dieri data? Since his publications contain a large amount of the Dieri linguistic data available outside the community, he could be seen as appointing himself as a gatekeeper to pretty much any non-primary research into the language. This is a point the President of the Utilika Foundation makes in the minutes of their 2011 AGM, which Austin cites as evidence of their ‘playing fast and loose':

The creators of many resources assert rights that, taken literally, would prohibit a person reading a resource from later making use of what he or she had learned from it. From the beginning of the project, I have considered such usage prohibitions unenforceable, and I have considered our use of any resource to be the recording of facts asserted by it, in a novel form, not the creation of a copy of it and thus not copyright infringement.

Austin is not himself a fatcat publisher, movie studio or software company, but his wielding of the copyright bludgeon is reminiscent of their current practices. When we want to install software or sign up for an online service, we are confronted with ‘licence agreements’ consisting of several thousand words of legalese gibberish. We can’t go any further until we confirm that we have ‘read and agree’ to the terms.6 I can’t play region-coded DVDs that I have bought in Europe on my Australian DVD player. In the US, the publisher HarperCollins recently moved to force libraries to limit e-books to being borrowed only 26 times (source). The list goes on.

Using copyright to stop or hinder other research projects is perhaps a greater sin, however, even if we might not agree with the aims of the project or are not impressed by the quality of their work. Such abuses of copyright stifle innovation and the advancement of knowledge. If it were not for restrictive copyright, the underlying data that went into producing the ‘Culturomics’ database could have been made available to users, which would perhaps have improved its usefulness.

Now to help us all calm down, perhaps we should hear the message in Sesame Street style from Nina Paley:

Image: Marcel Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q., a derivative work, from Wikipedia

Thanks to David Nash for reading this post and suggesting some improvements, mainly restraint – you should have seen the first draft! Of course, what I have said here cannot be taken to reflect his views.


  1. Austin, Peter. 1981. A grammar of Diyari, South Australia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  2. This is not the first time he has raised such concerns. He made similar complaints in a somewhat different case in an earlier blog post. Since this earlier case is not exactly parallel to the current one, my comments here cannot necessarily be taken to apply there.
  3. Austin comments: ‘The World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) defines intellectual property as “creations of the mind: inventions, literary and artistic works, and symbols, names, images, and designs used in commerce”. Here “creations of the mind” refers to something that somebody created, and hence does not cover general knowledge like the meanings of words, or forms of a morphological paradigm (a particular definition, e.g., that found in a printed dictionary, would however be subject to intellectual property rights).’ Austin, Peter. 2010. Communities and Ethics in Language Documentation, in Austin, Peter, ed, Language Documentation and Description Volume 7, p.41.
  4. Wikipedia contains an article that addresses the main points.
  5. See the UK copyright service fact sheet P-22.
  6. And what do we really surrender in these agreements?

Between Adelaide and Altenburg

On the ‘5th Sunday after Epiphany 1838′1 two Lutheran missionaries from the Dresden Missionary Society, Christian (Gottlieb|Gottlob)[see comments below] Teichelmann and Clamor WIlhelm Schürmann, were ordained in Altenburg, the capital of the small central German duchy of Sachsen-Altenburg. They were being sent to establish a mission to the Aborigines of South Australia, but the spreading of the gospel was not to be their only occupation. Their trip awakened the interests of Altenburg’s legion of amateur and semi-professional scientists – a common fixture of many German cities of the time – who were eager to hear reports and receive specimens from a far-off, exotic land. The missionaries were urged in their official instructions to collect ‘specimens of the products of South Australia’ for the missionary society’s scientific friends:

If you can support the works of the mission in Europe by sending, without too much cost, some specimens of the products of South Australia for the friends of our society who research the natural world, then we would hope that you will not want to withdraw from this labour of love for the advancement of science.2

St. Bartholomäikirche
Church St Bartholomäi, Altenburg, where Teichelmann and Schürmann were ordained. Photo by André Karwath.

Among the beneficiaries of the missionaries’ scientific work was the local nobleman and government minister Hans-Conon von der Gabelentz,3 whose passion was researching the languages of the world. He established a correspondence with Teichelmann over linguistic matters in South Australia. So far one letter from Teichelmann to Gabelentz has come to light, and there are undoubtedly many more waiting to be found. Gabelentz made active use of Australian data in his general linguistic work. In his monograph Über das Passivum (1861), an early typological work on the passive, he mentions data from Parnkalla and Kaurna from South Australia (citing materials from Teichelmann and Schürmann, as well as their fellow missionary Meyer) and Awakabal from New South Wales (citing ‘Threlkeld’s Grammar’).

The physical specimens that the missionaries collected were sent to the Naturforschende Gesellschaft des Osterlandes. The Naturforschende Gesellschaft was an amateur scientific society whose main aim was to research the natural history of the local area. Osterland is originally a historical designation for a region in what is now eastern Germany, but the society used the term as a romantic name to describe the area from the River Saale to the Erzgebirge, which could perhaps be more prosaically called ‘Greater Saxony’. Although their focus was on the local area, they were very excited about receiving specimens from afar, as their official report on the reception of birds Teichelmann collected for them shows:

However the most important delivery in terms of the number of specimens and their beauty and value we received last week from Missionary Teichelmann in South Australia. You [those present at the delivery of the report] have undoubtedly observed these today with pleasure at the society’s premises. The delivery consists of 336 specimens of around 170 species, which are all without exception new to our collection. The complete worth cannot be judged until the animals can be identified and valued in terms of their relative rareness in comparison with their size and beauty. In any case, these animals have a very significant worth. And for these treasures we owe our thanks to the care, diligence and selfless service of our honoured friend in Adelaide.4

Birds in the Mauritianum
Display cases containing birds collected by Teichelmann, Naturkundemuseum Mauritianum, Altenburg. Photo by Mary-Anne Gale.

Teichelmann's birds in the Mauritianum
Birds collected by Teichelmann in the Naturkundemuseum Mauritianum, Altenburg. Photo by Gerhard Rüdiger.

Unfortunately, this contact between Adelaide and Altenburg ended with Teichelmann and Schürmann’s mission to South Australia. The objects and documents that they sent back to Altenburg have had to withstand some trying times, with the various turbulent events that have shaken little Altenburg over the past one hundred and fifty years. The most significant of these are the Second World War and its aftermath. The von der Gabelentz family library, which was considered to be one of the greatest collections of books on non-European and especially East Asian languages, was largely transported to Moscow and Leningrad as war reparations. And many of the natural history specimens and papers that the missionaries sent to Altenburg lay neglected during the time of the GDR.

But the scientific heirs of Altenburg, the staff of the Naturkundemuseum Mauritianum and the Thüringische Staatsarchive Altenburg, have begun to open up and explore the old collections. And contact between Adelaide and Altenburg is also being re-established. Late last year and again earlier this year, I accompanied Rob Amery, the convener of the Kaurna Warra Pintyandi (KWP) group at the University of Adelaide, and Gerhard Rüdiger, who is researching the history of the Dresden Missionaries in South Australia, on visits to Altenburg. The high point was a talk that Rob Amery gave in the Mauritianum about Kaurna language revitalisation, which was very well attended. Later this year the Kaurna and Ngarrindjeri peoples will be sending a delegation to Germany for the 175th anniversary of the Dresden Missionary Society and to gather their own impressions of this far-off, exotic land.

My thanks to Rob Amery and Gerhard Rüdiger for reading this blog post and making comments and providing additional information that led to its improvement.


  1. This is the date as given in the full title of the Darstellung der Ordinationsfeier, edited by Dr Fr Hesekiel, 1838. Altenburg: Pierer. This date correspondes to 4 February 1838
  2. ‘Können Sie … das Missionswerk in Europa dadurch fördern, ohne bedeutende Kostenaufwand, von den Produkten Süd-Australiens für die Naturforschenden Freunde unserer Gesellschaft einige Exemplare übersenden, so wünschen wir, dass Sie sich in diesem Liebesdienste zur Beförderung der Wissenschaft nicht entziehen wollen.’ Instruktionen für die beiden Missionare der evangelisch-lutherischen Missions-Gesellschaft zu Dresden, Chr. G. Teichelmann aus Dahme (Herz. Sachsen) und Clamor W. Schürmann aus Schledehausen (bei Osnabrück.), p.682. In Rheinwald, George Friedrich Heinrich. 1840. Acta Historico-Ecclesiastica, Seculi XIX. Hamburg: Friedrich Perthes, pp.676-682.
  3. The son of Hans-Conon von der Gabelentz, Georg von der Gabelentz, went on to have a successful career as a linguist and sinologist. He often cited the influence of his father on his view of language. It has been claimed that as a particularly influential teacher of Saussure in Leipzig he could be considered a grandfather of structuralism, which, I suppose, makes Hans-Conon von der Gabelentz a great grandfather. See: Coseriu, Eugenio. Georg von der Gabelentz und die syncrhonische Sprachwissenschaft, in Gabelentz, Georg von der. 1972[1901]. Die Sprachwissenschaft: ihre Aufgaben, Methoden, und bisherigen Ergebnisse. Tübingen: Tübingen Beiträge zur Linguistik, pp.3-35. French original: 1967. Georg von der Gabelentz et la linguistique synchronique. Word 23, pp.74-110.
  4. ‘Die an Zahl, Schönheit und Kostbarkeit der Gegenstände bei weitem wichtigste Sendung jedoch erhielten wir vergangene Woche aus Süd-Australien durch den Missionar Herrn Teichelmann. Sie haben sie heute im Gesellschaftslocal gewiß mit Vergnügen bertrachtet. Dieselbe besteht aus 336 Exemplaren in etwa 170 Arten, sämtlich ohne Ausnahme für unsere Sammlung neu. Der vollständige Werth läßt sich nicht eher beurtheilen, als bis die Thiere bestimmt und nach ihrer relativen Seltenheit, im Vergleich mit ihrer Größe und Schönheit geschätzt seyn werden. Jedenfalls aber haben diese Thiere einen sehr bedeutdenden Werth. Und diese Schätze verdanken wir der Umsicht, Gewissenhaftigkeit und überaus großen Gefälligkeit unsers geehrten Freundes in Adelaide.’ Apetz, J H. 1844. Jahresbericht der Naturforschende Gesellschaft des Osterlandes. Mittheilungen aus dem Osterlande, 7, p.66.

Hugo Schuchardt Archiv

I’ve been meaning to express my love and gratitude for the excellent Hugo Schuchardt Archiv at the Uni Graz for a while now. I was thinking of maybe saying a little something about Schuchardt for his birthday or Todestag, but the dates passed and in any case I come to exhume Schurchardt, not to praise him.
You can read all about Schuchardt yourself at the archive. There’s freely accessible scans of all his published works, a growing full-text searchable database of some of the correspondence he received, some secondary materials, and pointers to further resources. More online archives like this would be great!

Wunderkammer Import Package 2 final release

The final release of Wunderkammer Import Package 2 is now available for download. Check out the Wunderkammer website for more info.
Thanks to everyone who pointed out bugs and made suggestions for improvement. In this release several bugs have been squished and a bit of input validation and some friendlier error messages have been added.
Work now begins on version 2.1! Keep the bug reports and other comments coming.

Wunderkammer Import Package 2

The latest version of the Wunderkammer mobile phone dictionary software, Wunderkammer Import Package 2 Beta, is now available for download. The major advance in this distribution is a new easy to use graphical user interface. There’s also a new set of documentation to go with the new user interface.
This is a beta release. We invite bug reports and suggestions for improvement on the PFED discussion board or by e-mail at james followed by the at sign pfed dot info.
The Wunderkammer website has also got a new layout and look.

Wagiman electronic dictionary

Aidan Wilson went up to Pine Creek and Kybrook Farm in the Northern Territory last week to deliver the various versions of the Wagiman electronic dictionary to the Wagiman community. You can read about it at the Project for Free Electronic Dictionaries blog.

Wunderkammer in Canberra

Dearest Canberrans,
I’ll be giving a presentation of the Wunderkammer mobile phone dictionary software at the ANU in Canberra at 11 am on 18 September. If you’re interested and in the area, come by. Full details, including the exact location, can be found here.

Endangered languages and technology in the New York Times

The New York Times has just published an article about the role technology plays in helping to save endangered languages. A few specific projects are mentioned, including some work supported by SOAS and MPI Nijmegen and our own mobile phone dictionary project.

Wunderkammer update

Work continues on the Wunderkammer software package, which makes electronic dictionaries available on mobile phones. A new version of the package, with new features and bug fixes, is available from the Wunderkammer website:
We’ll be presenting the Wunderkammer software and talking about some of the dictionaries that use it on 1 June 4pm to 5.30pm in Eastern Avenue Seminar Room 119, Sydney Uni. If you’re in Sydney, come along.


Over at the Project for Free Electronic Dictionaries, we’ve finally got the first version of Wunderkammer, our software for displaying multimedia electronic dictionaries on mobile phones, ready for release. We’ve also developed the application wkimport, which allows electronic dictionaries in a variety of formats to be imported relatively painlessly into Wunderkammer.
The packages for importing dictionaries, a demonstration Wunderkammer dictionary, all the source code and plenty of documentation are available at the Wunderkammer website: There’s also an online demo of a Wunderkammer dictionary that shows off some of what Wunderkammer can do without having to download it to a mobile phone. The emulator for the online demo does not always load properly, but it should work in most cases. If the online demo doesn’t work, just try the real demo on a mobile phone.