In its first-ever transparency report, the Wikimedia Foundation revealed a handful of odd stories about takedown requests sent to Wikipedia. Among the claims on public-domain books and monkey selfies was a curious request from 2012: that Wikipedia remove a page on the Tasmanian language palawa kani, because an aboriginal resources center owned the rights to the language itself.

Wikipedia rejected the request, warning that shutting down discussion and use of a language “would have chilled free speech and negatively impacted research, education, and public discourse.” But this is far from the first attempt to puzzle out whether it was possible to own a language — though it may be one of the most morally complicated ones.

No reasonable person could claim to own something like English, Spanish, or Mandarin. According to intellectual property lawyer Brad Newberg, invented languages aren’t so different. “The short answer is no,” he said when I ask whether a language can be copyrighted. The most obvious reason is that under US law, an “idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery” can’t receive protection. “If you're saying it's a language, what you're saying is ‘This is a series of facts,’” he says. “And facts are not copyrightable.”

That hasn’t stopped language creators from trying, or language users from worrying about it. In 2012, Oracle claimed that it owned aspects of programming language Java. A post on the Klingon mailing list warned readers not to ask for a complete list of words because the language was copyrighted by Paramount: “If someone started distributing lists of Klingon words (or descriptions of grammar, etc.), then Paramount might view this as competition for the legitimate sale of their own products.” Whenever a language can be traced back to a single group or person, it comes with the implicit concern that its creator might want to return and take the reins.