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Whose Language? The Royal Spanish Academy and Copyright

Can a language used by millions of people be copyrighted and be the property of an entity or institution? Is its appropriation by third parties legally permissible or ethical?

These questions have recently been circulating online following the announcement that the Royal Spanish Academy, RAE, and Grupo Planeta sent Uruguayan journalist Ricardo Soca to remove content from his website, elcastellano.org, that was considered their exclusive property, such as links to the RAE webpage.  According to excerpts from the RAE document [es] that Soca uploaded to the internet:

queríamos informarle que dicha Institución es el único y legítimo propietario de la marca RAE y de la información contenida en la Web www.rae.es, por lo que queda expresamente restringido el uso de de los mismos.

we wanted to inform you that said Institution is the sole, legitimate proprietor of the RAE brand and of the information contained on the www.rae.es webpage, whose use by others is expressly restricted

The document continues:

Con el propósito de evitar prácticas desleales así como de proteger los legítimos derechos de propiedad industrial e intelectual de la RAE, queda prohibida la introducción de enlaces que faciliten el acceso directo a cualquiera de los contenidos de los sitios web de la RAE, salvo en el caso de que se utilicen los procedimientos que la RAE implemente para ello, bien sea por medio de botones integrables en el navegador o de otro tipo de recursos de software.

La RAE y los derechos de autorFor the purposes of avoiding illegal practices as well as protecting the lawful industrial and intellectual property of the RAE, the introduction of links that facilitate direct access to content on RAE websites remains prohibited, except in the case that the procedures used are those implemented by the RAE, whether through integrated navigator buttons or other types of software resources.

The document is the typical “cease and desist” used by lawyers in defense of property rights. The request can seem reasonable, as it does not refer to the use of language but rather the resources and content owned by the RAE; however, the case has its difficulties. The affected journalist, Ricardo Soca, thought [es] says that an institution like the RAE should not be guided by profit:

Pero la RAE retacea el fruto de su trabajo por razones comerciales: su diccionario no ofrece en la web todos los servicios de su versión comercial en disco, el Nuevo Tesoro Lexicográfico de la Lengua Española no ofrece en la red los mismos servicios que su versión de pago en DVD, y no permite la divulgación de sus trabajos fuera de su página web por razones comerciales.

But the RAE keeps the fruit of its work on a tight string for commercial reasons: its dictionary does not offer all of the same services online as on the commercial CD version, the New Spanish Language Lexicographic Thesaurus does not offer the same services online as they do on the DVD version that users pay for, and it does not permit posting their work outside of their webpage for commercial reasons.

Soca adds:

En efecto, es sorprendente que una compañía poderosa como el Grupo Planeta pueda presentarse en nombre de la Real Academia, presionando para impedir la divulgación en la internet de obras en cuya elaboración han participado las veintidós academias, como es el caso del Diccionario de la lengua española y pretende imponer las leyes del reino a los países hispanohablantes.

In effect, it is surprising that a powerful company like Grupo Planeta can present itself on behalf of the Royal Academy, putting pressure to impede the online release of works that twenty-two academies participated in expanding, as in the case of the Spanish Language Dictionary, and expects to impose Spain's laws on all Spanish-speaking countries.

The association between the RAE and Grupo Planeta can seem strange, but Periodismo Humano's Juan Luis Sánchez clarifies [es]:

La Academia es una corporación pública financiada al 50% por las grandes empresas españolas […] a través de la Fundación pro RAE, precisamente creada en 1993 para ‘canalizar la ayuda’ de la sociedad civil. El presidente de honor de la Fundación pro RAE es el Rey de España.

The Academy is a public corporation, 50% of which is financed by large Spanish companies […] through the Pro-RAE Foundation, precisely created in 1993 to “channel help” from civil society. The honorary president of the pro-RAE Foundation is the king of Spain.

He also informs of other consequences from this action on behalf of the RAE:

Esta estrategia […] ha provocado indirectamente el cierre de otra página relacionada con la RAE. Esta vez se trataba de una “versión mejorada” para consultar del Diccionario Panhispánico de Dudas elaborada por Franz Mayrhofer, un hispanista colaborador del Instituto Cervantes (aquí su ficha profesional) en California.

This strategy […] has indirectly provoked the shutdown of another page related to the RAE. This time it dealt with an “improved version [es]” of the Pan-hispanic Dictionary of Doubts to consult, expanded upon by Franz Mayrhofer, a Hispanic collaborator from the Instituto Cervantes (here is his official profile [es]) in California.

Additionally, Sánchez mentions the case of Gabriel Rodríguez from Dirae.es [es], and explains that this search engine directs users to the RAE through a link. Nevertheless, citing and linking is not accepted under the Academy's copyright policy either.

En defensa de Dirae, su autor explica que “hace exactamente lo mismo que buscadores como Google”. Es decir, “busca en los contenidos de los sitios, muestra un extracto del texto coincidente y enlaza a la página”. De hecho, si usamos Google podemos hallar resultados muy parecidos de “tela”. ”Con la diferencia”, dice Gabriel Rodríguez, “de que Dirae no tiene publicidad y no genera lucro alguno, al contrario que Google o Bing. Pero claro, la carcajada que produciría una amenaza de Planeta a Google se escucharía en todo Mountain View”.

In defense of Dirae, the author explained that “it does exactly the same thing as search engines like Google.” This is to say that “it searches content on websites, shows a preview of the coinciding text and provides a link to the page.” In fact, if we use Google, we can find results very similar for “material.” “The only difference,” Gabriel Rodríguez says, “being that Dirae does not have ads and does not generate any profit, contrary to Google or Bing. But of course, the laughter that a threat from Planeta to Google would produce would be heard throughout all of Mountain View.”

After giving these examples of enriching uses of information that the RAE expects to “privatize” in some way, Sánchez concludes:

mientras que la web del diccionario de la RAE es tosca y poco usable, alternativas sin ánimo de lucro como las de Franz Mayrhofer o Gabriel Rodríguez ofrecen, por un lado, una experiencia más agradable y, por otro, servicios que directamente la RAE no desarrolla.

¿Debería la RAE permitir el uso sin ánimo de lucro de sus bases de datos, sus definiciones, sus normas? ¿Debería permitirlo incluso con fines comerciales? Todo este asunto sería un debate sobre la propiedad intelectual de lo público, parecido al que suscitan las políticas de transparencia, si no fuera porque el ecosistema de la Academia no es meramente institucional.

while the RAE dictionary webpage is rough and barely usable, non-profit alternatives like those of Franz Mayhrofer or Gabriel Rodríguez offer, on one hand, a more satisfying experience, and on the other, services that the RAE does not directly develop.

Should the RAE allow the non-profit use of their databases, definitions, and regulations? Should it permit it even with commercial purposes? All of this would the subject of a debate on public intellectual property, which the transparency policies seem to have given rise to, if it weren't for the fact that the Academy's ecosystem is not merely institutional.

Criticisms and reactions in the blogosphere

The Soca case has put these types of practices up for debate. In times when schools of thought like #opendata (open data [es]) are permeating public institutions little by little in the name of more transparency, the RAE seems to encompass views of the past. Nonetheless, this is a consequence of the liberalization, or perhaps mercantilization “in extremis,” of the state and its resource,s and Grupo Planeta is simply defending its contribution (and more importantly, its investment) in the RAE. As such, many express [es] that the RAE should be privatized entirely or return to being entirely public, with diverse consequences in each case.

Ebaste, from the Crónicas desde el Molino blog, states a series of criticisms of the RAE and says [es] that the institution has lost its way and is going through a serious identity crisis. With respect to the copyright of the Academy's works, he says:

Muchos de estos trabajos, especialmente los diccionarios, han sido desarrollados a lo largo de 300 años por muchas personas de un modo desinteresado o pagado por todos. No es aceptable que ahora se le apliquen restricciones de derechos de autor en beneficio de grupos editoriales privados.

Many of these works, especially the dictionaries, have been developed over the course of 300 years by many people in a way that was selfless or paid for by everyone. It is unacceptable that now they're applying copyright restrictions to benefit private editorial groups.

In Alt1040, Geraldine Suárez writes about linking, something that the RAE is prohibiting when it comes to their content, and demonstrates [es] her opinion on copyright:

En defensa de la RAE solo me gustaría señalar que no es una obligación adaptarse a la sociedad de la información, aunque es deseable, especialmente en el ámbito académico. Claro, sí la RAE solo esta interesada en el lucro y no en la difusión, podemos esperar que siga estancada en el siglo pasado, apropiándose del dominio público y además, reclamando que es de su propiedad™.

In defense of the RAE, I would just like to say that it is not their obligation to adapt themselves to the information society, though it is desirable, especially in an academic atmosphere. Of course, if the RAE is only interested in profit and not in sharing, we can expect it to remain in the last century, taking ownership of the public domain [es] and claiming it as its property™.

Jorge Fondebrider, from the Buenos Aires Literary Translator's Club blog (Club de Traductores Literarios de Buenos Aires), tries to see the whole picture and is of the opinion that RAE's actions are just the tip of the iceberg. He bases his opinion on RAE's advertised [es] webpage, financed by Telefónica, and quotes blog Addenda et Corrigenda [es] to say [es]:

“Desengañémonos –concluyen en Addenda et Corrigenda– : todos ellos, y no nosotros, son los amos de la lengua y la cultura en español.” […] La noticia del atropello a Ricardo Soca no circuló en los diarios, […] En el ámbito privado, salvo unos pocos amigos españoles conscientes de la gravedad de los hechos, la mayoría de quienes estaban al corriente se mostraron indignados en primera instancia, pero al saber que en el trasfondo hay una política económica y geoestratégica del Estado español que tiene la lengua como eje central (política de la que come toda empresa española relacionada con la lengua, a no olvidarlo) muchos fueron archivando la cuestión. Y así están las cosas.

La pregunta entonces es qué se puede esperar de España y qué van a hacer los gobiernos y asociaciones latinoamericanas frente a esta privatización encubierta de la lengua que es patrimonio de todos.

“Let's face the facts — they conclude in Addenda et Corrigenda — : all of them, and not us, are the owners of language and culture in Spanish.” […] The news of Ricardo Soca's outrage did not circulate in the papers, […] In the private atmosphere, except for a few Spanish friends conscious of the gravity of the events, the majority of those that were up to date proved indignant at first, but upon learning that in the background there is an economic and geostrategic policy on behalf of the Spanish state that has language as a central axis (a policy that every Spanish company related to language follows, not to forget it), many began forgetting the question. And that is how things are.

The question, then, is what can be expected of Spain and what are the Latin American governments and associations going to do with this concealed privatization of a language, which is everyone's heritage.

Nonetheless, people have not given up, and have created a blog titled RAE: Public Domain (Because language belongs to everyone) [es], which in its “About Us” [es] indicates:

Convertir el patrimonio de todos en un monopolio es una aberración y un abuso. Por eso, exigimos que la información recopilada y gestionada por la RAE – recordamos, con dinero público – pase al Dominio Público de forma inmediata.

Converting everyone's heritage into a monopoly is an aberration and an abuse. As a result, we demand that the information compiled and managed by the RAE — let's remember, with public funds — reach the Public Domain immediately.

There is also an online petition directed at the RAE, “Language belongs to everyone, not only corporations.” [es]

Finally, the post “Everything about my RAE®. The long line on the Ricardo Soca issue“[es], from the aforementioned blog Addenda et Corrigenda [es], compiles the most relevant and revealing information about the topic. Related hashtags to follow on Twitter are #RAEcensura #RAEdominiopublico #defineRAE #RAE.

Illustration of the post SUPPORT R.SOCA [es] on website SCH [es]. Post originally published in Juan Arellano's blog [es] on October 12, 2011.

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