Mapuche Indians in Chile are trying to take global software giant Microsoft to court in a legal battle which raises the question of whether anyone can ever "own" the language they speak.

The row was sparked by Microsoft's decision last month to launch its Windows software package in Mapuzugun, a Mapuche tongue spoken by around 400,000 indigenous Chileans, mostly in the south of the country.

At the launch in the southern town of Los Sauces, Microsoft said it wanted to help Mapuches embrace the digital age and "open a window so that the rest of the world can access the cultural riches of this indigenous people."

But Mapuche tribal leaders have accused the U.S. company of violating their cultural and collective heritage by translating the software into Mapuzugun without their permission.

They even sent a letter to Microsoft founder Bill Gates accusing his company of "intellectual piracy."

"We feel like Microsoft and the Chilean Education Ministry have overlooked us by deciding to set up a committee (to study the issue) without our consent, our participation and without the slightest consultation," said Aucan Huilcaman, one of the Mapuche leaders behind the legal action.

"This is not the right road to go down."


Microsoft declined to comment on the case, saying they could not do so until it is legally resolved.

The company has translated Windows into dozens of indigenous American languages in the past, including Mohawk, Quechua and Inuktitut, but has never faced such vocal opposition.

If history is anything to go by, however, the software giant could have a fight on its hands.

The Mapuche are renowned for their ferocity. They were one of the few tribes in South America to successfully resist both the Incas, who tried to colonize their lands, and the Spanish, who ruled much of South America for more than two centuries.

The Mapuche took their case to a court in the southern city of Temuco earlier this month but a judge ruled it should be considered in Santiago. A judge in the capital is due to decide in the next two weeks whether Microsoft has a case to answer.

"If they rule against us we will go to the Supreme Court and if they rule against us there we will take our case to a court of human rights," said Lautaro Loncon, a Mapuche activist and coordinator of the Indigenous Network, an umbrella group for several ethnic groups in Chile.

Huilcaman said the Chilean government, which supported Microsoft's project, should concentrate on making Mapuzugun an official state language, alongside Spanish.

"If not, we fear it runs the risk of following the same destiny as Latin, spoken only in universities," he said.

Mapuzugun is spoken by about two-thirds of Chile's Mapuches, who make up four percent of the population.

The case has sparked comment on Internet blogs. Many Chileans appear to feel it is absurd for the Mapuche to claim the intellectual rights to their language, and say the Indians should be pleased to see it used on the world wide Web.