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Copyright at MRU

What is Indigenous knowledge (IK)?

The Copyright Act does not protect Indigenous Knowledge (IK), as it typically has no identifiable creator(s) and often dates back many generations, both of which negate traditional copyright protections. This can lead students, instructors, and researchers to mistakenly treat IK as if it is in the public domain, ignoring the Indigenous laws under which it operates.

A great deal of IK was never intended to be externally accessible, but has nevertheless been made so. Examples include:

  • sacred ceremonial masks
  • ceremonies, songs, and dances
  • shamanic art
  • sacred stories and prayers objects with spiritual significance
  • sacred symbols, designs, crests, medicines, and motifs

IK can be broken down into two sub-categories.

Traditional Knowledge (TK) is generally defined as the know-how, skills, innovations and practices developed by indigenous peoples. Traditional Cultural Expressions (TCEs) are generally understood as the tangible and intangible forms in which traditional knowledge is expressed and may include oral stories, artwork, handicrafts, dances, fabric, songs or ceremonies. TK and TCEs are often (but not always) collectively held, and may evolve over time as they are passed down between generations; they are often viewed as a living body of knowledge that is not static.

Considerations when using IK

Get permission

When selecting resources try to locate authentic IK, and make sure you are treating it in a respectful manner. Often there are local cultural protocols around the use of IK, even when it has been (via permission or not) posted online. You should always try to obtain permission when using any form of TK, including cultural materials or practices such as legends, stories, songs, designs, crests, photographs, audiovisual materials, and dances from affected individuals, artists, families, Elders, hereditary Chiefs, Band Councils, or Tribal Councils prior to use.

Avoid cultural appropriation

Cultural appropriation is the use of IK without permission or regard for the cultural system from which it originated. It typically occurs when the original meaning and context of the IK has been lost, simplified, characterized, or distorted, regardless of whether it is presented in a positive light, and may be viewed as insulting or offensive to the affected Indigenous group.

Use authentic, reliable, unbiased resources (especially when searching on the Internet)

In some instances, works that deal with or contain IK may include inaccurate information or unfairly represent the unique experiences and world views of the particular Indigenous Peoples. Using such resources can further harmful stereotypes and misunderstandings. In contrast, authentic resources can deepen understanding by bringing Indigenous voices and perspectives into your own work. Always try to go the original Indigenous group and make sure you obtain explicit permission for your exact use.

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Legal Notice: The advice, information, and opinions on this LibGuide are not intended to constitute nor do they replace legal advice and they do not create an attorney-client relationship. Please consult with a lawyer for legal matters.