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Indigenous cultures have experienced a renaissance over the past 5-10 years as indigenous communities have recognized the importance of documenting and sharing their cultural heritage and history. This has coincided with the explosion of the internet and the widespread application of multimedia technologies to the construction of large online cultural collections. Together these developments have triggered a demand for copyright protection mechanisms. A number of XML-based markup languages (XrML, ODRL) have been developed to support the expression of rights asssociated with the intellectual property of resources. The MPEG-21 Multimedia Framework standard being developed by the Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG) aims to standardize such a language to enable the management and protection of intellectual property associated with multimedia content.

However it has been widely recognized that modern intellectual property laws, which are rapidly assuming global uniformity, fail to protect indigenous knowledge adequately or to support traditional or customary laws governing rights over indigenous knowledge. This paper considers some of the requirements for the protection of indigenous knowledge and the enforcement of tribal customary laws associated with knowledge, which have been expressed by Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. It assesses the ability of the two major XML-based rights markup languages (XrML and ODRL) to satisfy these requirements and suggests extensions to these languages to improve their support for indigenous knowledge protection. The aim of this paper is to provide a starting point which will encourage input, feedback and suggestions from indigenous communities. This will enable a clearer understanding of their diverse requirements with respect to the protection of intellectual property and traditional knowledge and the development of a satisfactory solution through future collaboration and consultation.

Given a standardized machine-understandable representation of rights information, the utopian dream of trusted systems – automated rights enforcement and secure transactions involving both indigenous and non-indigenous resources – moves one step closer. But more importantly, the recognition of customary law and the rights of indigenous cultures within such systems, will lead to greater cross-cultural understanding, respect and tolerance and the promotion of indigenous social, cultural and economic development.