Philip Parker's House of Words

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Something is rotten in Fontainebleau, and it isn't the cheese. There, a business professor and entrepreneur named Philip M. Parker INSEAD Chair Professor of Management Science at INSEAD, is creating a publishing empire of sorts, a very odd publishing empire. He claims to have published over 200,000 titles.

Mr. Parker's niche is the generation of books by computer programs from data collected on the net. He has quite a few business publications, an example of which is The 2007-2012 Outlook for Tufted Washable Scatter Rugs, Bathmats, and Sets That Measure 6-Feet by 9-Feet or Smaller in India, which may be had for $458. Those of us not that interested in the Indian floor covering market need not despair, for we can still enjoy this absolutely hysterical review.

Of concern to us is the fact that he has collected lists of words for over 600 languages and is using them to create products ranging from books of crossword puzzles to dictionaries. He has, for example, published a book of Wagaman Crossword Puzzles, based on the Wagiman Dictionary compiled by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. He also publishes dictionaries. Here is Parker's Murrinh-Patha Dictionary. Note that the domain he uses, websters-online-dictionary.org, has nothing to do with Noah Webster or the Merriam-Webster dictionaries.

I won't go into greater detail since it is already available from Aidan Wilson at Matjjin-Nehen and Peter Austin here and here. Such publications present several problems. One is the impropriety of Parker's failure to acknowledge the source of the raw material and to explain what is the result of his processing and what is not. A second is the poor quality of the resulting dictionaries, which do not indicate whose language it is and where it is spoken, explain the writing system or provide other essential information. The purchaser expecting a useful dictionary is very likely to be disappointed. Finally, there is considerable potential for damage to the often sensitive relationships between linguists and indigenous communities. Many indigenous people are worried by the thought of information about their language escaping into the wild, so to speak, getting out of their control and being exploited by unscrupulous outsiders. Most such concerns are misconceived, as few people have much interest in small languages and there is little profit to be gained by such exploitation. Parker's activities could provide fodder for what has hitherto been a largely groundless fear.

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26 Comments »

  1. Sili said,

    July 26, 2008 @ 7:24 pm

    For some reason I find it hilarious that Amazon can sell the book at $37 below the listprice.

    Sadly real people (made of meat) also rip the hard work of others from the net to publish on dead trees.

  2. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    July 26, 2008 @ 10:24 pm

    As a lay enthusiast of tufted washable scatter rugs, I plan on purchasing this book as soon as I can afford it on my teaching assistantship.

  3. MJ said,

    July 26, 2008 @ 10:27 pm

    Linguists might be interested in the New York times article on Parker, which contains a short quote from Chung-chieh Shan:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/14/business/media/14link.html?pagewanted=all

    Or, at least, linguists might be interested in the fact that a fellow, um, linguist-like person was interviewed for the article.

  4. Jangari said,

    July 26, 2008 @ 11:21 pm

    Thanks for further publicising this issue Bill, and thanks for putting the final nail in the coffin of my attempted anonymity (I say that in jest).

    A bunch of us, including Peter Austin, Jane Simpson, Claire Bowern, David Nash and Stephen Wilson, have been considering and discussing our options lately, but it seems pretty clear that Phil Parker has himself effectively quarantined from legal action (it's not an infringement of copyright to reproduce a list of words and their translations, it seems).

    I've been chasing up a complaint with Amazon.com for selling possibly fraudulent books and publishing obviously fraudulent reviews of his books. Unsurprisingly, the review you link above is identical to dozens of other reviews for books of this kind, but his medical reference books (his third main focus) are even less subtle; their reviews are completely identical and differ only in the name of the disease. They are clearly as automated as the books themselves. All of this would certainly be against Amazon.com's terms of service, one would have thought.

    On a positive side, a colleague of mine and myself, intend to produce an interactive, electronic version of the Wagiman dictionary, and to produce a mobile phone java application of it as well. You can read about it (for Kaurna) here.

  5. Wayne Leman said,

    July 26, 2008 @ 11:25 pm

    I was shocked to discover a few days ago that Dr. Parker had produced two expensive lexical items for Cheyenne, the language I have been working with for many years, at the request of the Cheyennes. Parker simply copied my data from an online Cheyenne dictionary and did not cite his source. Then he introduced a number of errors into his description of the Cheyenne words. I would like to see indigenous language communities put a stop to such piracy of their intellectual property. I've tried to make sure that everything I did for the tribe was either copyrighted in their name (with profits going to some tribal language fun) or else having clear statements that they own the data and could copy it without permission.

    See the reviews I recently wrote for amazon.com for Parker's Webster's Cheyenne-English Thesaurus Dictionary:

    http://www.amazon.com/Websters-Cheyenne-English-Thesaurus-Dictionary/dp/0497834677

    and his Cheyenne crossword puzzles.

    The lexical format of his "thesaurus dictionaries has no scientific merit that I can discern. He is trying to force minority languages into an English thesaurus model. He just plugs in words from other languages, without any attention paid to the actual lexical relationships in those languages, and whether or not they bear any resemblance to English lexical relationships.

    I have emailed Dr. Parker with my concerns and reviews, including with a return receipt requested, but have not yet received any reply.

  6. Wayne Leman said,

    July 26, 2008 @ 11:53 pm

    For some reason I find it hilarious that Amazon can sell the book at $37 below the listprice.

    If you go to a universal book search engine such as this one:

    http://www.addall.com/

    and type in the ISBN # of one of Parker's books, you will find booksellers in Europe and elsewhere who are charging far more than the already outrageous prices amazon.com (U.S). is charging for these little booklets.

  7. Jangari said,

    July 27, 2008 @ 12:23 am

    Wayne, you bring up another point that we've been mulling over. As field linguists, we work hard to garner the trust and mutual respect between us and our informants, especially with languages like Wagiman, which has probably four remaining speakers. A large part of that trust rests on the fact that we have signed ethics agreements and have promised not to use the data in any way that the community doesn't deem to be in their best interests.

    Then along comes someone who ignores the copyright notice on a free-to-view web-published dictionary (ignored is probably not the best word, 'curtailed' is better) and reproduces the dictionary such that neither the community, nor the researchers working on their language, have any say in how that information gets represented and disseminated.

    It's the sort of thing that could turn the community against the researcher, for allowing it to happen, and away from doing things like allowing their language materials, such as texts and a dictionary, to be viewed by non-commercially interested parties.

    Wayne, if you'd like to be involved with whatever action we collectively take against Parker (I don't mean to imply legal action, because that'd be too taxing for everyone except Parker himself), or at least join the already multi-national discussion, then email me: jangari [at] matjjin-nehen [dot] com.

  8. Bill Poser said,

    July 27, 2008 @ 2:34 am

    As a lay enthusiast of tufted washable scatter rugs, I plan on purchasing this book as soon as I can afford it on my teaching assistantship.

    What seems excessively specialized is a matter of taste. I remember hearing a "thirteen part series on the history of the viola da gamba" presented as a (possibly apocryphal) example of the lack of connection of the BBC to its audience and wondering what the problem was.

  9. Bob O'H said,

    July 27, 2008 @ 5:38 am

    Parker was featured in the Annals of Improbable Research. They took a typically amused attitude to the whole affair.

  10. Rob Gunningham said,

    July 27, 2008 @ 5:58 am

    booksellers in Europe and elsewhere…are charging far more

    What a sleeze. But why the whacky titles? I'm assuming (for want of a better reason) his title for '6×9 ft Rugs' was chosen so that the book will show up in google searches, although he should have gone metric if he wants a European to buy it.

  11. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    July 27, 2008 @ 12:32 pm

    @Bill: noted. I guess really I can't make fun of anyone since I'm planning to start on a paper called "Reduplicated Animal Names in the Plateau Linguistic Area". Probably about as excessively specialized and ridiculously obscure a topic as Parker's.

  12. Jangari said,

    July 27, 2008 @ 7:09 pm

    I wouldn't attribute the writing of the book with any human-input, Rob Gunningham. If the data that Parker's web-scraping programs had statistics relating to bathmats was in imperial, then that's what his book-producing behemoth will expectorate.

  13. Bill Poser said,

    July 27, 2008 @ 10:21 pm

    <Ryan Denzer-King wrote:

    I guess really I can't make fun of anyone since I'm planning to start on a paper called "Reduplicated Animal Names in the Plateau Linguistic Area". Probably about as excessively specialized and ridiculously obscure a topic as Parker's.

    That' s nothing -I have written a paper about a single morpheme in a single language: .

  14. David Starner said,

    July 27, 2008 @ 11:32 pm

    Jangari: I'm curious what caselaw you have on the subject that says a lexicon isn't protected by copyright. The selection of words to include in the lexicon and the choice of which word to use as translation seem to be creative acts sufficient for copyright. I would think that having a lawyer write out a cease and desist would be sufficient to stop Parker from using a work; it can't be profitable for him to fight it in court.

    I do find it sort of bizarre that a language community would expect kickbacks for the use of information about their language. I've sent information to the OED, and neither I nor my language community have seen reward, financial or otherwise, besides that production of that dictionary.

  15. Jangari said,

    July 28, 2008 @ 1:48 am

    David, I'm not at all suggesting that a speech community should receive payment in royalties or anything of that sort for the use of their intellectual property, and nor would they. But they do certainly want to retain intellectual control over how that information is used and disseminated. This would mostly mean that if someone wanted to produce, say, a Wagiman learners' guide, that they would seek permission from the community to do so, and the community would pretty much grant the permission, provided it accurately portrayed their language and their speech community. This publication, for instance, does not accurately portray the speech community – there isn't any metalinguistic information regarding the Wagiman people at all, even the term 'Australia' isn't mentioned a single time in any of Parker's 'Wageman' [sic] books – nor does it accurately portray the language, since all that is given is a Wagiman word and an English word, the latter of which may be lexically or structurally ambiguous, and no morphological, grammatical or orthographic information can be found anywhere in the book.

    But the discussion over whether or not languages themselves can even in principle be considered intellectual property (hint: yes) is for another thread.

    As to your first point, I agree that a lexicon should be the sort of thing that is copyright-protectable, but Parker (personal communication) himself disagrees:

    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 would think that Parker has himself legally covered from just about every angle.

  16. Bill Poser said,

    July 28, 2008 @ 2:42 am

    David Sterner,

    A basic principle of copyright law is that it does not apply to facts or ideas, only to their expression. You may, therefore, take the information from a telephone directory or chemical handbook and republish it in your own format without fear of violating copyright. If someone has published a table of atomic weights in the form of limericks, you may copy down the atomic weights and republish them, because they are mere facts, but you may not republish the limericks because they are not mere facts and your reproduction of the creative expression of the other author does infringe his or her copyright.

    In the case of a lexicon, the argument is that the words, glosses, parts of speech, etc., are mere facts, like telephone numbers or atomic weights, and so are free for the taking. The particular arrangement, if sufficiently creative, may be subject to copyright. So, if Parker had simply scanned a dictionary produced by AIATSIS and reprinted it, he would be infringing the copyright, but if he extracts the information and arranges it himself, he is home free.

    If you want to look into the law, the leading case in the US is Feist Publications v. Rural Telephone Service Co., 499 U.S. 340 (1991 (familiarly known as Feist v. Rural). In Canada the issue did not reach the Supreme Court and the leading case is a Federal Court of Appeals case, Tele-Direct (Publications) Inc. v. American Business Information, Inc. (C.A.), 1997 CanLII 6378 (F.C.A.).

  17. David Starner said,

    July 28, 2008 @ 9:34 am

    Bill Poser: I know Feist, but Feist is pretty limited. The distinctions I would make between this and Feist is that inclusion is not mechanical and is guided by creative choice, and that glosses aren't mere facts, but instead interpretation. For example, in two Latin dictionaries:

    concido: to be ruined, fail /cut up, cut down, destroy (Lynn H. Nelson: http://arts.cuhk.edu.hk/Lexis/Latin/)
    concido: cut up, kill, slaughter (Gavin Betts: Teach Yourself Latin)

    That difference is based on two scholar's interpretation of the meaning, and I believe it is significant enough to be copyrightable.

    I think that he could be sued, at least for the complete copying of the lexicons, but if he's not reachable by threats, and you aren't/can't hire a lawyer to fight him, that's probably moot.

    Jangari, languages in theory can be considered intellectual property, but that strikes me as a sterile argument. In fact, IP is copyright, trademark and patents, with a host of minor rights, and under none of those does a language fit. http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Parthenon/9902/legalop.html is a legal opinion written by the former General Counsel to the NEA that says that Quenya and Sindarin are fair game to use, despite the Tolkien estate's clear claim to the underlying books.

  18. Stephen Jones said,

    July 28, 2008 @ 11:07 am

    I would like to see indigenous language communities put a stop to such piracy of their intellectual property.

    Words are intellectual property? What crazy jurisdiction is this under, or is it simply an attempt at a scam?

  19. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    July 28, 2008 @ 11:49 am

    When I linked to this book on Amazon, in the "Customers Who Bought Items Like This" (whatever that could mean in this case) section, I found, along with a number of books about hemochromatosis, a book called "Dementia and Geriatric Cognitive Disorders." I wonder what that says about this book.

    As for the exceedingly long title, this is just a guess, but I bet there is a single Hindi word that describes this specific type of mat, a word we simply don't have in English.

    Because everybody knows that Hindus has 57 different words for rugs and bathmats.

  20. M Carter said,

    July 28, 2008 @ 12:19 pm

    The best, most practical thing anyone can do is post a review to Amazon and other sites where his books are sold. Compare the Philip Parker work to the works from which it was ripped off and point out that those superior materials are available on the web.

  21. dr pepper said,

    July 28, 2008 @ 1:28 pm

    What claims are made for these books? It may be a case of criminal fraud.

  22. Dan T. said,

    July 28, 2008 @ 1:35 pm

    If a language can be considered to be intellectual property, then just who owns English? The queen?

  23. Josh Millard said,

    July 28, 2008 @ 2:18 pm

    Ah, Phil. There were a couple of threads on Mefi about him (Feb, 2008, April, 2008) that are a bit more jovial than academic.

    The whole thing is just absurd enough to be a little admirable in its awfulness.

  24. Bill Poser said,

    July 28, 2008 @ 8:49 pm

    Dan T.,

    A description of a language can be intellectual property but a language itself cannot. Nobody owns English, or could own it.

    Bill

  25. Bill Poser said,

    July 28, 2008 @ 8:53 pm

    David Starner,

    In the case that you cite, the two different Latin dictionaries, copyright is indeed applicable. I do not claim that a dictionary is not subject to copyright, only that its content is not. Whether the glosses and definitions are copyrightable depends on how creative they are and how much room for variation there is. If you've just got simple glosses, they are arguably not subject to copyright because there isn't much choice as to what to say. Full, careful, definitions, on the other hand, probably are copyrightable.

    Bill

  26. Phil Parker said,

    October 29, 2008 @ 12:04 pm

    Dear Bill,
    I received an email from Wayne Layman this week pointing me to your blog. If you have sent me an email, I am sorry for not responding; his emails were sent to an account that is monitored for volunteers, and I did not see his mails until now. I inferred that he felt that you may have sent me an email (or two). I do not have records of these (I have checked all folders, including spam folders, but there may be errors in this way of looking). If you sent me an email, can I ask you a favor to resend to phil.parker@insead.edu. I will be more than happy to address your concerns.
    Cheers,
    Phil

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