The recent story of the wholesale copying of an Inuit shaman’s robe by a UK designer raises interesting issues regarding the legal protection (or lack thereof) for indigenous cultural heritage in Canada as well as the cultural dissonance that can arise in disputes over the right to use certain motifs, designs and images.
In this case, the great-granddaughter of an Inuit shaman has expressed dismay over the use of the design of a shaman’s jacket. The design for the original jacket was one that came to her great-grandfather in a dream. The jacket had been photographed and the photograph appeared in a book titled Northern Voices: Inuit Writing in English by Penny Petrone, published in 1988. According to the CBC story, a replica of the same shaman’s jacket was used in a 2006 film titled The Journals of Knud Rasmussen.
Seen through a Western IP lens, the shaman who created the design might well be its author, and the design might be capable of copyright protection, but the term of copyright protection would have expired by now. As a result, the design is in the “public domain” and anyone is free to copy it. Yet from the great-granddaughter’s perspective, the design is sacred, and its reproduction or use should be subject to consent. Who is entitled to give this consent and under what terms may be complex questions, yet they are questions that ethics, at least, if not law, require to be asked.
The issue of the appropriation of indigenous imagery or designs in fashion and in other contexts is a recurring one. In Canada, for example, a dispute arose over the decision of HBC to outsource the creation of imitation Cowichan sweaters for sale during the Vancouver Olympics. Other fashion designers have been taken to task for their appropriation of indigenous cultural imagery and design. There have also been concerns raised about the appropriation of indigenous tattoo designs. There have been many instances as well of the use of indigenous pictographs on t-shirts. In March 2015, the CBC also reported on the use of First Nations design elements in the fashion line of Dsquared2, although in this case the concerns were not simply over cultural appropriation but also over the use of offensive terminology. These are only a very few examples.
Arguments about the right to restrict and control the use of sacred imagery, or the right to control the production and reproduction of indigenous designs are frequently treated as normative ones. In other words, they turn on what “should” be done, rather than what “must” be done. Laws, including intellectual property laws, provide legal tools to exercise control over works, but the reality is that these laws are focussed on identifying and defining property rights in creative output and in facilitating the economic exploitation of this output. While intellectual property laws can also be used to restrict the commercial exploitation of works, their focus on individual authors and the limited term of protection are not well-adapted to protecting material that is sacred to a people. The concept of the “public domain” – those things which are not protected or no longer protected by IP laws and are therefore free to all to use – can be particularly problematic when it comes to the disconnect between IP laws and indigenous cultural property. While many First Nations in Canada have found ways to use existing intellectual property laws to give them some ability to prevent or control the commercial exploitation of traditional images or designs (certification marks and official marks, for example, have been used in some cases), the effectiveness of these tools will vary according to the circumstances, and in some cases they may simply not be suitable.
Normative arguments are easy to dismiss and ignore, in part because the legal machinery of the state is not there to recognize and enforce them. As Canada enters a new era of reconciliation, law and policy makers should turn their attention to addressing the gaps between what it is right to protect and what the law will actually protect.