Posted to the Ethnos Project by on March 11th, 2012


Last year, a friend of mine from a remote community in Arnhem Land, in northern Australia, came down to Canberra to look through various collections that pertained to his community and his clan, the Gupapyngu people. (The trip takes a day and a half by plane.) This material had been collected since the 1920s by a range of individuals – anthropologists, linguists, musicologists, archaeologists, teachers, missionaries. In particular, Joe was seeking a photograph or film taken of him and his father Djawa around the 1950s. Joe knew that many films had been made in the 1950s, and he had been slowly finding these held in libraries and archives around Australia. But Joe had not yet found a film or photograph that showed him with his father, a prominent man who had been a senior Gupapyngu leader.

Initially Joe and I spent some time in my organization, The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS), which holds the largest collection of material pertaining to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and lifestyles ( for instance – 650,000 pictorial images; 300,000 hours of recorded film; half a million feet of film footage; 15,000 hours of film sound-track; 5000 video titles; 750 works of art and artifacts; and, the largest comprehensive collection of print materials). As a break from searching the collections at AIATSIS, we went up to Screensound Australia (the national archive for sound and film material) to see what material they had. They were not really sure what was on the roll of film they showed Joe, only that it was a recording of Djawa in the 1950s. As the film ran it became clear that it a ceremony, and that Djawa was teaching this ceremony to a few children, one of the children Joe recognized instantly to be himself. He asked for the film to be stopped and to rerun the part with him and his father. We watched this scene many more times – Joe had never seen anything with him as a child nor anything where he and his father were both performing in the same space. Fifty years after the film had been made, Joe was sitting in a cultural institution in Canberra watching his father teach an important clan ceremony – he was watching a film that had been made in Arnhem Land, recorded by an anthropologist and did not belong to him, his father, or his clan.

As a senior clansman, Joe feels very strongly about accessing historical and contemporary material that relates to his family, clan and community. Joe searches the country for this material, often spending days in libraries and archives pouring over catalogues and classificatory systems. He wants to repatriate all the material that he finds back to his community in Galiwinku – and is often successful in convincing librarians and archivists to help him find, and then copy or digitize that material. It is a long and difficult process but he always returns home with something that no-one knew still existed, perhaps a photograph from the mission days, perhaps an incomplete sound recording, perhaps hours of off-cuts from a film.

This may be a familiar story about locating family pasts and histories – and to some extent it is. However, it comes with a significant difference in collecting and management rationale that has generated challenges for Australian libraries and archives. For most of the material is not owned by Indigenous people, but rather the people who ‘made’ the film, sound recording, photographs and manuscripts. This means that the key issues that are currently facing collecting institutions in Australia revolve around ownership and access and they exist because of the historical power dynamics that meant that Indigenous people were studied and documented in unprecedented ways. Tensions do not just revolve around providing access to the material, but also inevitably engage with politics addressing the historical conditions under which such material was collected. In most cases, Indigenous people are not the legal copyright owners of the material – and this means that they have very little say in how the material is used and accessed. Material relating to Indigenous peoples lifestyles and cultures exists as published and unpublished material – with a significant amount already in the public domain. The kinds of forms the material take include sound-recordings, photographs, films and manuscripts, with a more recent trend relating to Indigenous knowledge systems including the compilation of lists and inventories, and forming databases of knowledge.

Fundamental questions about access and control, ownership and authorship test rationalities of library and archival management. In Australia, like in other places around the world, Indigenous people are seeking greater access to and, in certain cases, control over cultural material. This not only challenges rationalities of library and archival management but legal conceptions of authorship and ownership including, importantly, conceptions of ‘public’. On one hand such struggles can be understood in the light of dynamic post-colonial politics. On the other hand, the reinterpretation of material from within libraries and archives by the historical subjects of colonial projects of documentation affects not only how the material itself is understood but the extent that libraries and archives respond to Indigenous needs in terms of access, control, ownership and future use.

This paper will explore the extent that Indigenous interests in material held in libraries and archives generate contests over ownership. Critical issues that expose the tensions between the legal framework and Indigenous rights and interests include:

  • the complex history of collecting and depositing cultural material;
  • who speaks and/or ‘owns’ the cultural material once creators are deceased and the material may be in the public domain;
  • the changing relationship between the secret and the sacred in Indigenous communities and the consequent effects on access;
  • gender divisions in access to knowledge;
  • the nature of negotiations between Indigenous peoples and researchers in knowledge creation and use.

With these thoughts in mind this paper derives from the following questions: can our interpretations of fair use and access to material remain normative in the context of Indigenous knowledge and folklore? Or do we need to reconsider Indigenous peoples needs as generating differing interpretations of what is at stake with the circulation of information. How can libraries and archives respond to Indigenous people as new user groups? Can libraries and archives be actively engaged in rebalancing copyright for Indigenous people and communities? If so, how might this new relationship be imagined and then translated into practice?

This is a difficult conversation because it involves intersections of remnant colonial power, rationalities of copyright, and interpretations of knowledge circulation, access and control. Nevertheless the aim of this paper is to share some of the insights from Australia. Australia has certain expertise in this area, but it is in no way definitive – it is still one country among many. In describing approaches to this issue I will be drawing directly upon my own experiences of working on specific copyright issues within an archival setting that holds the world’s largest collection of material relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. I should say from the outset that the most difficult material I deal with in terms of Indigenous access, control, ownership and copyright law is films, sound-recordings and photographs. Consequently it is this kind of material that will inform the position taken in this paper. Further, as a significant amount of this material remains unpublished, and hence in an almost perpetual copyright,2 the movement into a digital environment raises new questions about reproduction, publication and ownership.

But to begin it is first necessary to situate this discussion within a global political context about Indigenous rights in intellectual property – if only to see the myriad discussions on this topic, and the extent that Indigenous interests in intellectual property are raising concern across a range of international forums.

About Dr. Jane Anderson

From Dr. Anderson’s website:

Jane Anderson is a legal scholar, a consultant and an advocate on intellectual property and Indigenous/traditional/local knowledge resources. Jane Anderson holds a PhD in Law from the University of New South Wales, Australia. Her work is focused on the philosophical and practical problems for intellectual property law and the protection of Indigenous/traditional knowledge and cultural heritage. In addition to her theoretical and philosophical work in this field, Jane has worked on a range of intellectual property and Indigenous knowledge projects with Indigenous communities and organizations in Australia, Indonesia, Canada and the United States.

In Australia these projects have focused on addressing Indigenous interests in access, control and ownership of ethnographic and cultural materials within libraries, archives and museums and the digital repatriation of this material back to communities. In Indonesia as part of an inter-disciplinary research team, Jane worked with local artists and community leaders, non-governmental organizations and Indonesian government officials to develop alternative legal strategies for the protection of traditional artistic expressions across the Indonesian archipelago.

Jane is also working on several ongoing projects: namely, in Canada with Greg Young-Ing, Merle C. Alexander and the Indigenous Peoples Caucus on the development of practical guidelines for Indigenous and local communities when developing intellectual property protocols; as a Project Ethnographer for the SSHRC Project Intellectual Property in Cultural Heritage: Theory, Practice, Policy, Ethic; and with the World Intellectual Property Organization on the development of an international alternative dispute resolution/mediation service for intellectual property and Indigenous/traditional/local knowledge disputes.

Her book Law, Knowledge, Culture: The Production of Indigenous Knowledge in Intellectual Property Law was published in 2009 with Edward Elgar Press, UK.

For more about Dr. Jane Anderson, please visit her website.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *