Copyright as a colonizer’s tool—lessons from the 2018 #ccsummit

Reflecting on learnings from the 2018 Creative Commons Global Summit in Toronto, Canada

I was happy to hear Chris Bourg remind us that “libraries have never been merely neutral repositories of knowledge” in her keynote at this weekend’s Creative Commons Global Summit in Toronto. She elaborated that particularly in Western countries of the “global north”, libraries were born out of colonialism, institutional oppression, and capitalism; academic libraries, in particular, have long been steeped in neoliberal ideology.

I think this statement is worth taking some time to unpack. Librarians of colour such as Fobazi Ettarh, have written about the institutional racism entrenched in library history. Ettarh highlights, for instance, the fact that millions of Black Americans were prohibited from public libraries in southern states before the civil rights movement. And in his paper, Trippin’ Over the Color Line: The Invisibility of Race in Library and Information Studies , Todd Honma outlines the role the early public library played in promoting assimilation into the [white] mainstream and “Americanization” of immigrants as part of its mission. Just a couple weeks ago, Nicola Andrews shared her thoughtful and personal article on how libraries continue to uphold colonialism and white supremacy.

This idea that libraries–and by extension, the open access and open knowledge movements—are not neutral, nor inherently good, was a theme that I found myself revisiting throughout the summit. Day 1’s session on Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property, Traditional Knowledge, Copyright, and Creative Commons served as a particularly sobering wake-up call that copyright—and CC licenses—can be harmful and inappropriate tools.

The session opened with Kim Christen and Jane Anderson, who highlighted how archival practices often contribute to, and maintain, the colonial agenda. Large amounts of Indigenous knowledge and cultural materials (e.g. photographs, recordings) were extracted and archived by Western researchers over the last century; and although there are efforts to return these materials back to Indigenous communities, for the most part, Indigenous people—even those appearing in photographs—have no legal rights to these materials. Colonialism extends to metadata practices, too: a photo in an online collection often provides attribution to the photographer, but rarely the Indigenous subject in the photograph.

Christen spoke about Mukurtu, an open source content management system for Indigenous digital cultural products, designed in collaboration with Indigenous communities. Mukurtu has a number of features that allow Indigenous communities to adapt the platform to their own needs and define their own terms of use. Some features include: selective sharing that honours local protocols, metadata fields based on local needs and dialects, and use of Traditional Knowledge (TK) labels. Importantly, this means that open access to materials is not the default.

Anderson shared her work with Local Contexts, an initiative which “provides legal, extra-legal, and educational strategies for navigating copyright law and the public domain statusof cultural materials for Indigenous communities. TK labels were developed by the Local Contexts initiative to act as a guide for accessing and using digital Indigenous cultural materials that have been taken out of context. For example, the TK Secret/Sacred label lets visitors know that the material “ is traditionally and usually not publicly available because it contains important secret or sacred components,” and that because “ it is not, and was never free, public and available for everyone at anytime”, requests that users respect this status, and withhold from its use and/or circulation.

These tools are already being put to use. James E. Francis, who spoke next, and sits on the Native Advisory Council of the Abbe Museum, shared how the museum is currently going through a decolonization process to make sure materials are attributed properly to tribes. This decolonization process is supported by use of the Mukurtu platform and TK labels.

Colonialism, copyright and who gets to own Indigenous stories

The session closed with Paul Williams, a lawyer from Six Nations of the Grand River Territory. Williams spoke of the exploitative and extractive nature of ethnographers who transcribe sacred stories from Indigenous communities and then claim copyrights to those stories. Even more problematic? The fact that the original storyteller is often legally unable to access those transcriptions. He emphasized that for many Indigenous materials, the idea of public access is not appropriate. A settler applying an open license to an Indigenous cultural product should not decide that this product now belongs to the commons—or as Williams so succinctly put it, “Planting your flag in our garden doesn’t make it your garden”.

Williams also drew attention to the recent battle from residential school survivors to protect their privacy and rights to their personal stories of trauma. As part of a settlement agreement program, over 37,000 survivors went through a process where they shared painful stories of abuse at the schools in order to claim compensation from Ottawa for these abuses. In other words, they were forced to relive their trauma in detail, in order to prove it existed. Confidentiality was promised. Disrespecting this agreement, the Government of Canada subsequently wanted records of these personal stories, these traumas, archived and preserved in Library and Archives Canada for archival and research purposes. Although the Supreme Court ultimately ruled that survivors would be able to decide whether their record should be preserved or destroyed, this episode is a clear example of how power, colonialism, and copyright can intersect and threaten to re-inflict harm and violence on Indigenous communities.


As a woman of colour and child of immigrants, I am guilty of brushing aside the privilege and problematic assumptions I hold as a settler. Although I have written about, and participated in, critiques of the lack of diversity in the Open Access communities, I have often failed to fully consider Indigenous perspectives. As such, this session was a necessary lesson to me that like libraries, and like the open information movement, copyright is not neutral. Copyright can be used as a tool for exerting control and ownership—and so quite fittingly, also as a tool for colonial practices. It was a reminder to me of the necessity of continuing to constantly interrogate our assumptions about what is good or useful, and to question who is not at the table.

I had not previously heard of Mukurtu or TK labels, and I am grateful for getting the chance to learn from the speakers at this CC summit session. I hope that future conferences in the open access and open knowledge communities—not just the Creative Commons summit, but also beyond—will continue working on prioritizing the voices and perspectives of Indigenous communities and people of colour.