Traditional Knowledge Licences

We have all seen the statements under Youtube videos. You know the ones. When you’re watching something that has been on television, or watching something under copyright. You’ve seen the little statement of “creative commoncc.logo.larges licence”.

The idea of a creative commons license is that people have a right to use media in educational and non-profit ways. These licences outline the terms by which one’s work can be used, shared, or remixed. Copyright is a contentious issue in and of itself. Many companies that produce cultural content such as television shows, films, videos, or music, don’t want people to be able to obtain their work in its entirety for free. This isn’t solely an economic issue, but regardless of where you stand on the issue the question remains: who, if anyone, has the right to control culture?

Today’s blog post is about a different issue surrounding cultural content. Let me begin with an example. When I was young and would be having dinner with my parents and grandparents, we would all speak English. However, certain topics would come up (often gossip, to be honest) that “wasn’t for me to hear”, and so they would switch to speaking Italian. What little passive ability I have in Italian is thanks to a childhood of straining to catch the details and juicy gossip being shared. However, the main point is that that information wasn’t for me. I wasn’t the intended audience, and I was actively discouraged from obtaining that information by the speakers using a language that I didn’t understand.

This is common among many people and families, even if a second language isn’t available to switch to. Whether whispering in the kitchen, or using vague and coded language to ensure the children won’t understand, some information in our households isn’t meant for everyone. In the digital age, so much of the information of the world is readily available to anyone with internet and curiosity.

Now, I am going to bring these two ideas—YouTube and my gramma gossiping in Italian—together. There are many cultures, peoples, and language communities that have information that is privileged, or is in some way meant for only a certain subset of the people. Today, these peoples want their language and way of life preserved, but keeping the traditions of who can possess this information is a growing concern.

lc_label_women_rlc_label_sacredA possible solution has been found in the creation of “cultural licences”. A link can be found here: Traditional Knowledge Licences.The idea behind these licences is that information, videos, images, recordings, and whole archives can be put under a licence to ensure only the appropriate parties have access.

A great example of this was shared with me from a professor Berez who taught Language Archiving at CILLDI (a summer indigenous language school) this summer. Colleagues of hers were preserving audio cassettes, by converting them to digital formats—to protect for the eventuality that the tape deteriorates and becomes unusable. At the start of one of the tapes, an elder of a tribe was heard saying that the song she was about to sing belonged to this community, and that it should never be played outside the community. The preservation of the tapes was being done off-site of the community, and this provided a dilemma for the preservationists. Preserving this cultural artifact was important, but respecting the wishes of the deceased, and the cultural values ascribed to the song were also paramount.

Traditional Knowledge licences allow people to guard against the use of certain information by unintended parties. These range from gendered (meaning some for only men, and some for only women), to geographic (the information shouldn’t be accessed from outside the community), to culture (you must be a member of a certain tribe or people), to rank (you must have attained a certain status in your community before you can access the information). There are even “sunset clauses”, which can refer to the information only becoming available after a certain number of years. For example, if in a recording the speaker says things that could be controversial in the present, they may ask for a sunset clause, so that the information isn’t released until after their death.

These licences don’t protect perfectly, much like you can still find movies that are under copyright on YouTube right now, but they are a step in the right direction. They help to protect information, and work to ensure it falls into the hands of those who have the right to possess it. Cultural licences also help to raise awareness in the general public that different cultures and peoples share information in different ways, and that these licences allow the transmission of knowledge and information respectfully.

A further step is used by some archive websites such as AILLA, which possesses recordings of hundreds of Central and South American languages. Some of those archives of recordings are password protected, or require the interested parties to contact the controller of the archive to ask for permission to use the archive, which will have restrictions. These could include being in the same country, or being part of an ethnic community.

This summer I was part of a discussion in which a Cree individual expressed that some information was so culturally significant that she would rather see it disappear from record, than see it be given to everyone with an internet connection. In fact, they said some stories need to be told again each time, and so a recording should never be done. The story must be retold, live, each and every time, otherwise it loses its cultural significance.

These cultural licences are a great step toward respecting the wishes of peoples who want their way-of-life and culture preserved, but also want what is preserved to be used and shared responsibly.



Take care eh,


Michael Iannozzi

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