Can Indigenous Art Be Copyrighted Material?

Indigenous art is a beautiful and unique expression of culture, but can it be copyrighted material? Here we explore the potential legal implications of copyrighting indigenous art.

Indigenous art is art created by indigenous peoples. It includes art made by Inuit, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It often features patterns, symbols and stories from their cultural traditions.

Some examples of Indigenous art include:

  • Inuit carvings
  • Aboriginal paintings
  • Torres Strait Islander shell necklaces

What is copyright?

Copyright is a type of intellectual property that gives creators the exclusive right to reproduce, distribute, perform, and display their work. Copyright protection is available for a wide variety of works, including books, music, movies, and more.

In order to qualify for copyright protection, a work must meet certain requirements. First, it must be an original work of authorship. This means that it cannot be a copy of another work and must be created by the author. Additionally, the work must be fixed in a tangible form. This means that it must be able to be seen or heard by others. Finally, the work must be original and creative. This means that it cannot be a simple factual work and must show some level of creativity.

Can Indigenous art be copyrighted material?

Indigenous artists can copyright their work in Australia. Copyright protects an artist’s economic rights, which means they can control how their work is used and reproduced. Copyright does not protect an artist’s moral rights, which means they can’t control how their work is used if it doesn’t damage their reputation.

What are some benefits of copyrighting Indigenous artwork?

Indigenous artists may choose to copyright their work to:

  • Stop others from copying it without permission;
  • Make money from licensing fees; or
  • Stop people from falsely claiming that they created the work.

Are there any disadvantages of copyrighting Indigenous artwork?

Yes, there are some potential disadvantages to copyrighting Indigenous artwork, including:

  • May make the work harder to share;
  • Prevent others from using the work for educational or research purposes; or
  • Make it harder for the artist to sell the work in the future.

The Relationship between Indigenous Art and Copyright

Indigenous art has a unique relationship with copyright. Unlike other forms of art, indigenous art is often created within a communal context and does not always have a single author. This can make it difficult to determine who owns the copyright in a particular work of indigenous art, and whether that copyright is protected under Australian law.

There are a number of ways in which copyright can apply to indigenous art. For example, copyright may protect:

  • The design of an indigenous artwork;
  • Photograph or other image of an indigenous artwork; or
  • Performance or recording of an indigenous song or dance.

However, there are some exceptions to copyright protection for indigenous art. For example, copyright does not protect:

  • Ideas, symbols or methods of creation; or
  • Works that are too simple or commonplace to be considered original.

Indigenous artists also have the option of using traditional knowledge labels to mark their work. Traditional knowledge labels are voluntary and indicate that the work includes traditional Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander knowledge, and that this knowledge should be respected.

Why is Copyright Important for Indigenous Art?

Copyright law is important for Indigenous artists because it provides a way to protect their Intellectual Property (IP). Copyright gives the creator of an original work certain legal rights, including the right to stop others from copying, distributing or modifying their work without permission.

Indigenous artists often create artwork that is based on traditional stories, knowledge and designs. This means that their artwork can be very valuable, both culturally and commercially. Copyright law can help to prevent others from exploiting Indigenous artwork without permission or compensation.

There are a number of ways that Indigenous artists can use copyright law to protect their artwork. For example, they can register their work with a copyright collecting society such as CALQA or VISCOPY. They can also include a copyright notice on their artwork. This notice will indicate that the artwork is protected by copyright and will deter people from copying it without permission.

Indigenous artists should be aware that copyright law does not protect ideas, only the expression of those ideas in a tangible form. This means that anyone can freely use an Indigenous artist’s idea, but they cannot copy or reproduce the artist’s actual work without permission.

How Can Indigenous Art Be Copyrighted?

Indigenous art can be copyrighted in a number of ways. The most common way is to register the work with the Indigenous Art Code, which is a voluntary code of conduct that aims to promote fair and ethical trading in Indigenous art.

Another way to copyright Indigenous art is to register the work with the Australian Copyright Council. This is a national body that provides information, advice and educational resources on copyright law in Australia.

Finally, Indigenous artists can also use the ‘moral rights’ provision in the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) to assert their authorship of a work and to prevent it from being misused or misrepresented.

What Are the Benefits of Copyrighting Indigenous Art?

There are a number of benefits that come with copyrighting Indigenous art. Firstly, it can help to protect artists from having their work copied without permission or attribution. Secondly, it can provide a financial incentive for creators, as they can charge for the use of their copyrighted material. Finally, copyrighting Indigenous art can help to raise the profile of Indigenous artists and their work, potentially leading to more opportunities and recognition.

The Challenges in Copyrighting Indigenous Art

There are a number of unique challenges in copyrighting indigenous art. One challenge is the question of authorship. In many indigenous cultures, art is considered to be a communal effort rather than the work of a single individual. This can make it difficult to identify a single author who can claim copyright ownership.

Another challenge is the question of traditional knowledge. Indigenous peoples often have a deep connection to their land and their culture that goes back thousands of years. This knowledge is often passed down through generations in an oral tradition. It can be difficult to prove ownership over this kind of knowledge, since it is not always possible to provide a written record of its origins.

Finally, there is the issue of commercialization. Many indigenous artists worry that their work will be used without permission or compensation if it is copyrighted. They may also fear that copyrighting their work will strip it of its cultural significance and make it into a commodity. These are valid concerns that need to be considered when copyrighting indigenous art.


In conclusion, it is important to remember that the Copyright Act does not make any distinction between “fine” or “folk” art, or any other type of art for that matter. Whether an artist is from a mainstream or Indigenous background, their works will be protected by copyright if they satisfy the originality requirements set out in the Act.