A few posts back, I wrote about a book that David Nash had found on Amazon.com, which appeared to be a bi-directional crossword-puzzle book between English and Wageman [sic1]. It seemed as though these books, and a few others on Amazon on Wageman, contained the very same wordlist collected by a previous researcher and published under copyright at AIATSIS.

This is by no means an isolated incident. Parker has wordlists for around 600 languages stored online, and could potentially create crossword books, dictionaries and thesauri for each of them. See also Peter Austin’s post at Transient Languages and Cultures regarding a similar thing having happened to the Kamilaroi/Gamilaraay dictionary.

Instead of letting this issue slide into the obscurity of my Mabitjbaran, or Archives, I bought a copy of each, English to Wageman and Wageman to English, and have made contact with the ‘author’, Philip M. Parker, to solicit his explanation of what appears to be a blatant violation of copyright restrictions.

First thing’s first though. The books actually appear to be a pretty good educational resource, assuming that the school in Pine Creek is up to the point of recommencing its Wagiman language programs, of which I’ve only ever seen fleeting bits of evidence of ever having taken place2. The books comprise probably hundreds of automatically generated crosswords with the solution words in alphabetical order at the bottom. In spite of the books’ copyright restrictions by their supposed author, I’ve scanned a page of one of these books, which you can view here.

I’ve also done a little more background research on the author of these books, Philip M. Parker, and as it turns out, he’s not at all involved with dictionary compiling, language work or language education. In actual fact, he’s a professor of marketing and a generic entrepreneur at the Singapore campus of an international private business and marketing college based in France, called INSEAD. He even has a biography page on Wikipedia, which is interesting to this topic, as it goes into detail about his book publishing career. Apparently he’s quite famous in the marketing and entrepreneurial world.

His fame derives from the fact that he has developed a process that automatically produces and prints books on demand, with little or no interactive work. Each book that gets printed costs him an estimated 12 pence Sterling. So good is his software apparently that he has authored 85,764 books on sale at Amazon.com.

Parker estimates that it costs him about 12p to write a book, with, perhaps, not much difference in quality from what a competent wordsmith or an MBA might produce.

Nothing but the title need actually exist until somebody orders a copy. At that point, a computer assembles the book’s content and prints up a single copy.

Not much difference in quality from what a competent3 wordsmith might produce? If you check a random selection of some of these books, you’d be forgiven in not seeing what sort of quality he’s referring to:

The 2007-2012 Outlook for Tufted Washable Scatter Rugs, Bathmats, and Sets That Measure 6-Feet by 9-Feet or Smaller in India

Riveting. And that costs US$495.00, in case you were wondering.

What Parker does is harvest data, irrespective of what sort of data it is, and churns out books with it. It doesn’t matter if no one’s interested in the statistical prognostications for the Indian mid-sized bathmat industry, because each book is printed if and only if someone actually orders it; a copy may never actually exist. But considering there are libraries around the world that will buy a copy of each and every publication under the sun, Parker is probably earning a lot of money.

As I mentioned at the start, I’ve made contact with Parker and courteously attempted to solicit some information, such as which wordlist he used, and whether there were any copyright protections on that data. This is the response I got back:

Thank you for your concern; there are no copyright violations. Please feel free to copy my puzzles for your teaching4.

p.s. translations of words, themselves, cannot hold copyright, only the format in which they are presented (translations of single words are public knowledge; translations of creative works are not). I will later be doing anagrams, poems, rhyming sections, etc.. java-based web games (free to use), etc.

I felt a little confused by this response; I’m not very knowledgeable about copyright law and would have expected that someone’s research and work would be protected under copyright. At the same time though, I’m sure that Parker has done his legal research and knows full well what he can and cannot do. Peter Austin has a legal advantage over me in this respect; his Gamilaraay dictionary included some reconstructions:

It is not possible to copyright common knowledge such as words and meanings. Unfortunately for Parker, some of the quoted forms, like muRumuRu on page 11 are creative works since they are reconstitutions which I have posited on the basis of 19th century published and unpublished amateur recordings (as explained in the preface of my dictionaries — note that the orthographic R is not a Gamilaraay sound but a cover term for where I could not determine whether the source represented a flap rr or a continuant r). Now that is copying of creative work without attribution, in my view.

It may turn out to be a little more difficult to demonstrate some ‘creative work’ with the Wagiman dictionary, and we may just have to accept that legally, this sort of blatant plagiarism will be allowed to continue.

Let my warning be this: If you find a book written by Philip M. Parker that looks interesting, avoid it; you can probably find the content online for free.

  1. We spell it Wagiman these days. Wageman was the spelling adopted by earlier researchers, Ethnologue and AIATSIS. Phonetically speaking, I couldn’t judge either way. For ease of fact-checking, I’ll retain the spelling used in the books.
  2. Perhaps Wamut could help me out here.
  3. Notice also that he implies here that he is an incompetent wordsmith.
  4. I take my blog to be ‘teaching’, thereby indemnifying myself against the apparent copyright violation of my publishing of a scan of one of his crosswords