17 Apr 2007   |   News

Copyrighting tribal tradition


Extension of the coverage of the copyright has been one of the dominant traits of the inexorable rise of intellectual property. It is usually discussed in the context of high-technologies and, more specifically, of computer software. Now it appears that  copyright may be useful not only for the present and the future but also for the past.

According to a well-researched article published in the Herald, a local newspaper in Washington State, the indigenous Indian tribe of Tulalips want to use the copyright to preserve their tribal tradition, which goes back for several centuries and comprises songs, paintings and carvings as well as oral stories, built around gods and monsters invented by storytellers. In the absence of such protection, tribe leaders believe that their culture will be either become extinct as elder members of the tribe die, or be misappropriated and disfigured by outside commercial interests. In order to physically preserve the tradition, a computerised database of various artefacts is being designed.

Tribal leaders are drafting a specific legislation, with the help of community volunteers and the Center for World Indigenous Studies in Olympia, Washington. Such a law is needed as the current copyright usage in the United States does not cover collective works, whose authorship cannot be precisely attributed.

In this era of growing interest in cultural heritage and tradition, the potential impact of the approach of Tulalips goes well beyond the northwestern corner of the US and has global implications. According to the article, WIPO follows the Tulalips’ case closely and wants to use the proposed Tulalip law as a model for other indigenous groups worldwide.


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