I’d like to spend this post talking about the world of intellectual property, and the growing dialogue over how to include Indigenous works in copyright law. This is a current topic which includes many people who know much more than I do, but I wanted to use this platform, however small, to raise public perception of such an important concern.
So much of Indigenous knowledge is relayed orally, yet we are offered little to no legal protection over this vital medium. Of course, we still ask for permission to perform drum songs or retell an individual’s story, for example, but we are often not given that same level of respect back.
In Traditional Knowledge Exists; Intellectual Property is Invented or Created, Gregory Younging discusses traditional knowledge. Traditional knowledge is a term for traditions such as agricultural techniques or astronavigation, which are based on experiences passed down through communities and generations.
Many First Nations communities have their own customary laws, which state how a piece of traditional knowledge may be used, whether it be kept to a certain group of people, used in a specific setting, with the guidance of a trusted individual, etcetera.
Despite the longevity of these systems, they are not officially recognized in western law for a variety of reasons:
- First Nations people most commonly communicate teachings through spoken word, which means that our knowledge is typically not recorded in written form.
- A vast majority of traditional knowledge is reliant on the land it was conceived on, so it may not even be relevant to those outside the community.
- Traditional knowledge specifically denotes techniques that have been used for so long that they would automatically be placed in the public domain anyways.
- Furthermore, there isn’t always a specific person to which legal rights could be granted to.
- These systems can also interplay with eachother in many different ways, which makes it even more difficult to pin them down legally.
One of the biggest concerns with how traditional knowledge isn’t properly covered under western law includes the appropriation of closed practices by people who are okay with encroaching on our intellectual property, provided it is technically legal to do so.
There has subsequently been a push for Indigenous communities to adapt their customary laws into the systems of intellectual property. Unfortunately, many factors including those above make it hard to reconcile these two forms of copyright.
It would be a shame for the preservation of traditional knowledge to be undermined by intellectual property laws that were created and forced upon us, while also not recognizing our complex systems that had worked perfectly fine for thousands of years.
I hope that eventually traditional knowledge will be held to the same standard as western copyright law, and that we may be protected against appropriation and plagiarism of our work without needing to fundamentally alter our entire systems in order to do so.
Gregory Younging, Traditional Knowledge Exists; Intellectual Property Is Invented or Created, 36 U. Pa. J. Int’l L. 1077 (2015).