Thursday, March 29, 2007

Copyright, Maori symbols and me

Today at art school we had a lecture on the Treaty of Waitangi, which included material about Maori symbols and their appropriation by commercial entities for advertising purposes. (Some of it was amusing - like the story of the American gaming company whose super-macho male hero was modelled on Maori but had female tattoos.)

During the discussion on copyright law and I couldn't help thinking that the issues are the same for the Maori as for the OSS community. Maori have a community ownership model and they are now thinking up ways to protect their inherited symbols while avoiding being squeezed into an inappropriate legal framework ie the European/American copyright/patent/legal system.

Most New Zealand symbols (apart from sheep!) are Maori symbols and this puts pakeha (non-Maori) New Zealanders like me in the odd position of identifying with symbols that are not inherited from my own ancestors but assimilated from the Maori culture around me. I find I identify quite strongly with these symbols while not really knowing enough about their significance. Coming back here to live here has given me an opportunity to address this identity issue and going to art school had provided the means, as there is a Maori liaison unit here that deals with these issues. Today I decided to integrate these copyright/identity issues into my term project. I am not sure how yet, but knowing that I want to do this makes me feel as if I have made progress.


Random Person said...

Hi there, I'm a thirteen year old student of Wellington East Girls' College New Zealand, and I was wondering if you could tell me a about what you think of the Maori wanting to copyright culture since I'm choosing to study copyrights and culture for my social studies project, and I would love to get different opinions. So my question is, do you think it's logical to copyright culture? Do you think other cultures should do it to? Why/Why not?

Elizabeth said...

Hello thirteen year old from Wellington,

As I understand it, Maori do not recognise the legal framework under which copyright exists, so really you could not say they are trying to copyright culture. I think they are just trying to prevent inappropriate use of symbols by those who have not taken the trouble to understand them. My experience is that they are very happy to share with people who have taken the trouble to inform themselves.I have asked Maori about meanings and found them exceedingly helpful. If you have a Maori liaisson officer at school, that is a good place to ask questions.

I like your topic. Good luck!

This is how Wikipedia ( defines copyright:

Copyright is a legal concept, enacted by governments, giving the creator of an original work of authorship exclusive rights to control its distribution for a certain time period, after which the work enters the public domain. Generally, it is "the right to copy", but usually provides the author with other rights as well, such as the right to be credited for the work, to determine who may adapt the work to other forms, who may perform the work, who may financially benefit from it, and other, related rights.

Random Person said...

Thank you very much for your opinion and suggestions, it will be great help for my project :3

Wiremu Te Kanawa said...

Tena koe Elizabeth!

As a fluent speaker and practitioner of Maori customs and protocol, what you've said about the meaning and understanding of the symbolisim is BANG on. We Maori aren't trying to 'make a buck' from out cultural symbols, but would like our imagery to be understood and used appropriately. An example of inappropriate use was when there was a commercial airing in France that depicted a group of French females performing a haka. If they understood the purpose of the haka, they would have reconsidered their angle.

Anyway, it is encouraging to hear that non-Maori such as yourself have acknowledged and accepted that Maori/Kiwi/Aotearoa/New Zealand symbolism as being part of your identity. If you call Aotearoa home, and you understand the meaning them, then those symbols are yours as well.

Nga mihi,

Wiremu Te Kanawa

Elizabeth said...

Hallo Wiremu Te Kanawa
Thank you for your feedback.
I did a project with New Zealand symbolism at Art School in Dunedin and found the help of the Maori Liasson Officer Khyla Russell absolutely invaluable. She taught me that the most important thing is to try to be informed about things you are using ... and that means asking someone who knows - then there is seldom a problem. I might put my work on my website soon to show it. Now I have incorporated the lessons and learnings into my own person I will be able to share it. For a while it was too close. My website is at

Thank you for being so supportive and good luck with all your life projects.