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Digitizing Traditional Culture

June 2008

Indigenous cultures the world round have seen their ritual ceremonies, music, symbols and creative arts imitated, reworked, copied and sold without acknowledgement or authorization, and often without respect for their cultural and religious significance. Many communities feel that enough is enough! They are now actively exploring how best to protect their heritage from the “free for all” while at the same time preserving it for future generations.

This was the situation of the Maasai community of Laikipia, Kenya, when they first requested assistance from WIPO in 2006. As a result of an exploratory visit to the community, WIPO will launch in September a pilot training program designed to assist indigenous communities to document their own cultural traditions, archive this heritage for future generations and manage their IP interests when doing so.

Using technology to preserve tradition 

New digital technologies offer a practical means to document, record and digitize expressions of traditional cultures. Such means respond to the strong desire in indigenous communities to preserve, revitalize and promote their cultural heritage, and to pass it on to succeeding generations. However, the documentation and digitization of living traditions, which embody both communal creativity and individual artistic expression, is highly complex. Further, without careful IP management, digitized intangible cultural heritage is vulnerable to unwanted exploitation.

WIPO’s pilot training program will respond to both the utility of technology for indigenous communities and the paramount need to empower communities to make informed decisions about how to manage IP issues in a way that corresponds with community values and development goals. The primary goal of the program is to provide community members with the practical skills and technical knowledge needed in the fields of cultural documentation, archiving and IP management, which would enable them to record, archive and manage access to their own cultural heritage. The program will assist communities to develop their own IP policies, protocols and technology-based tools to manage access to their recordings and other forms of cultural documentation (see text box).

The pilot program in September will be run in collaboration with the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. and the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

Maasai community first to benefit

In September two members of the Maasai community and an expert from the National Museums of Kenya will travel to the American Folklife Center and then to the Center for Documentary Studies for the training. The intensive, hands-on curriculum will include such topics as project planning, research ethics, digital archival methods, documentation techniques and database and website development and management. WIPO staff will provide the IP component of the training, with the support of the US Copyright Office.

A WIPO expert mission to the Maasai community of Laikipai, Kenya, in 2006 led to the creation of the pilot training program. (Photo: WIPO/Wend Wendland)

Upon their return to Kenya, WIPO will provide the Maasai with a basic kit of field equipment, computers and software for their own use. The National Museums of Kenya will also provide the community with ongoing institutional support.

The Maasai community and the National Museums of Kenya will participate directly as partners in evaluating this pilot initiative and together will make recommendations for its improvement and further development. Based upon their feedback, WIPO will consider offering this training program to different indigenous communities and cultural institutions on an annual basis in collaboration with institutions in other parts of the world that may wish to join in or offer similar programs.

WIPO’s Creative Heritage Project

The pilot program is part of WIPO’s Creative Heritage Project, which is developing a suite of practical tools for managing IP options when documenting, recording and digitizing intangible cultural heritage. These tools will include a resource book on IP issues for museums, archives, libraries and other cultural institutions, which will specifically deal with the management of IP in relation to indigenous collections.

A complementary set of practical guidelines for indigenous and local communities on developing IP protocols is also being drafted for consultation purposes. These guidelines will focus on empowering indigenous and local communities to establish their own IP-related protocols, contracts and strategies for the use of their traditional cultural expressions within the community and by third parties. This could assist communities to foster more equitable and balanced relationships with third parties such as researchers and the private sector.

Indigenous communities managing access

Many museums and other cultural institutions have developed IP protocols and codes of conduct, as have several indigenous communities. WIPO has made available a searchable database of such institutional and community protocols, policies, codes and practices as well as and standard agreements relating to the recording, digitization and dissemination of intangible cultural heritage, with an emphasis on intellectual property issues. The database also contains surveys of experiences in several countries.

The following are examples from the database of how indigenous communities are dealing with IP issues as they manage access to, control over and ownership of their cultural documentation:

  • The Sealaska Heritage Institute, founded by the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian communities of Alaska to promote and protect their cultures, has adopted a Cultural and Intellectual Property Rights Policy regarding the protection of crests, songs, stories and names as well as a Photography (Including Video and Film) Policy that limits commercial recordings of cultural celebrations and events .
  • In Jamaica, the Rastafari community, represented by the Ethio-Africa Diaspora Union Millennium Council, has drawn up a draft IP contract for the filming and recording of their performances and for other media activities.
  • In Australia, the Mukurtu Wumpurrarni-kari Archive was established by the Warumungu community to house photos, digital video clips, audio files and digital reproductions of cultural artifacts and documents. Access to the digital Archive is defined by access parameters based on a set of Warumungu cultural protocols for the viewing and distribution of cultural knowledge.
  • The Hopi Tribe of Arizona has developed a Protocol for Research, Publications and Recordings that sets out how the Hopi people would like their intellectual resources and traditional cultural expressions to be used by others.

By Wend Wendland and Jessyca Van Weelde, Traditional Creativity, Cultural Expressions and Cultural Heritage Section, WIPO.

The WIPO Magazine is intended to help broaden public understanding of intellectual property and of WIPO’s work, and is not an official document of WIPO. The designations employed and the presentation of material throughout this publication do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of WIPO concerning the legal status of any country, territory or area or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries. This publication is not intended to reflect the views of the Member States or the WIPO Secretariat. The mention of specific companies or products of manufacturers does not imply that they are endorsed or recommended by WIPO in preference to others of a similar nature that are not mentioned.