Intellectual property in Indian Country
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JUNE 2, 2000

As the Internet and other electronic media become more viable ways for Native Americans and tribes to make their voices heard, many questions are being raised on how best to control, protect, and work with Indian intellectual property in this increasing digital age.

If the arts and crafts market is any indicator, where it is estimated that half of the goods are fraudulent, Internet savvy Indians could lose valuable money, credit, and compensation without adequate control of works such as digital images, web sites, and other electronic intellectual property.

Lance Morgan, a Harvard educated Winnebago lawyer, is one prominent Native business person concerned about the issue. Morgan is Chief Executive Officer of Ho-Chunk, Inc., the development company of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska. He's also CEO of one of the newest Indian Internet ventures being launched around the country, AllNative.Com.

"I think the Internet is an anything goes place," says Morgan, when asked about intellectual property. "It will be really difficult to police."

Despite these reservations, Morgan has launched head first into the Internet. In 1999, Ho-Chunk, Inc., began AllNative.Com, which distributes and sells Native made products, and soon saw business increase.

Based on its success, Morgan spent the early part of 2000 creating innovative content and commerce sharing partnerships with other Indian owned and run companies, such as Noble Savage Media, a media firm specializing in the creation of Indian-related content.

Noble Savage executive Mia Merrick, Omaha Tribe of Nebraska, is also a Harvard trained educator who believes education and business go hand in hand. As co-founder of Indianz.Com, Merrick says the only way to ensure a Native perspective is for Natives to create their own media, be they web sites or otherwise.

Tribes across the nation agree with Merrick and more than 100 federally recognized tribes, like the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux and the Seminole Tribe of Florida, have developed their own presence on the web. With a nationwide push to close the digital divide, the number is likely to grow.

With this in mind, Eric Brunner, an Abenaki engineer from Maine, began a campaign in 1999 to establish a sovereign space on the Internet for tribes and indigenous people throughout the globe. Citing questions of ownership, control, compensation, and protection, Brunner makes note of sites masquerading under tribal names which can lead to confusion.

One glaring example on the misuse of indigenous intellectual property came last year after the first successful Makah whale hunt. Anti-whaling activists launched a rival site, using logos and other copyrighted property of the Makah's Tribe of Washington. The fraudulent site was shut down, thanks to Internet users aware of indigenous rights and issues.

This type of abuse of indigenous intellectual property is a major concern will continue to be a problem for tribes and Native peoples.

For Merrick, it comes down to empowerment. "By empowering ourselves, Noble Savage and AllNative.Com hope to create comprehensive, authentic content and commerce Native sites," states Merrick.

Indianz.Com encourages:
  • Internet users to place and enforce copyrights on their original works
  • The electronic dissemination of news articles and information from our site, with proper credit
  • Users, tribal governments, and Indian-owned and run businesses to create their own homepages

Related Articles:
Indian Country: Falling into the Digital Divide? Part I (Tech 04/11)
Indian Country: Falling into the Digital Divide? Part II (Tech 04/17)

Relevant Links:
From the Hopi Tribe: Intellectual Property Rights
Links and Resources: Cultural Property
From the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs: Protecting Knowledge: Traditional Resource Rights in the New Millennium
From the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO): Roundtable on Intellectual Property and Indigenous Peoples
Tribal Law Intellectual Property Home Page: