Copyright Can Be Sacred, Literally

16 07 2011

To those of us acculturated in the tradition of the European Enlightenment and its emphasis on the supremacy of the individual, copyright is exclusively a secular issue. I recently became introduced to a spiritual approach to image copyright as taught by the Māori, the indigenous people of New Zealand. To the Māori, copyright can be sacred, literally.

When I began exploring visual ideas for a mosaic to convey the mission of The Cultural Intelligence Blog, I came across a striking image of Māori warriors, a small portion of which truly resonated with what I wanted this site to communicate. Alas, I could not identify from whom to request reprint permission for part of the photograph, so I finalized the rest of the draft while continuing my search for the “owner” of the image. This, even though under U.S. law commentary is classified under the fair use exemption for copyright. I have since removed the component from the draft. To see the source image, I have provided a link to the following article about the Toa Takatāpui -Safe Sex Warrior Poster:

I decided not to pursue using the proposed image after I finally tracked down someone in New Zealand familiar with the photo shoot, and received the following reply:

Kia ora Jason,

Congratulations on developing your blog site to create discussion and
awareness relevant to all our communities.

In regards to your request using the Toa Takatāpui -Safe Sex Warrior
Poster, we would have to decline and ask you to remove this image from your

This is a cultural image for us which was used specifically for our kaupapa
(cause). The moko (tattoos) carry much cultural significance for Māori and
seeking permission before utilising their faces is paramount when dealing
with our people. I am sure you understand this, with the topics you are
dealing with on your site.

The image itself was sacred to our community and was blessed from the elders
to only be used to promote safe sex, and no other kaupapa.

Also the model release forms we have from the community members (models)
used in this image does not allow us to re-use it for any other publication
or purpose.

I would like this removed as soon as possible and we wish you all the best
with your endeavors.

Heoi ano

Jordon Harris
Programme Manager Community Engagement | Kaiārahi New Zealand AIDS
Foundation | Te Tūāpapa Mate Āraikore o Aotearoa

First, I am grateful that I persisted in seeking reprint permission for uncredited content because thus I learned that copyright can be sacred—not just a protection of personal property. I give profuse thanks to Jordan Harris for enlightening me. He reminded me that each day is an opportunity to learn, grow and deepen our compassion, as long as we practice respect for the beliefs of others. And of course I removed the image immediately.

Since it is taboo among the Māori for the uninitiated to perform the Haka war dance, I wonder if the Māori elders view the following instance of cultural appropriation as a violation of their spiritual copyright.

The Safe Sex Warrior Poster is no longer available. I wish it were, so that I could purchase one. Perhaps my readers will help encourage the Kaiārahi New Zealand AIDS Foundation to consider a second printing. I can only hope. The creation of the poster is a story that deserves retelling.

As always, I welcome all comments!

Jason Berman




3 responses

20 07 2011
North-South Communications

I’d like to thank one of our readers for commenting that images of a haka—”a symbolic ‘war dance’ used by the NZ rugby union (and League??) teams, with variants used by other South Pacific islanders, immediately prior to kick off, and the opposition faces up to accept the challenge”… has “been used by the NZ All-Blacks since the early 1900s. That makes for literally many many hundreds of hakas, each of which is invariably snapped by dozens and dozens of photographers. I would estimate there to be literally hundreds of thousands of images of the haka. I would feel aggrieved if I had snapped an absolutely unique event, on which my livelihood as a photographer depended. But this image has been replicated innumerable times.”

20 07 2011
North-South Communications

How interesting that copyright of ubiquitous photographic images in one culture can be considered a trifle, yet mean so much more than mere property to the Māori culture. There is also the distinction that while some consider copyright to belong to the photographer, to the Māori (if I understand correctly), copyright belongs to the subject. Differences also exist culturally on the question of fair use when only a small part of an image is used, say, in a mosaic or composite work of art containing multiple component images.

1 09 2011
Dirk Boersma (@DirkBoersma1)

Thank you for creating this awareness Jason. I remember that traditional people often don’t want to be portrayed as they believe that their spirit is taken form them with the photograph. Since then I always ask for permission.

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