Te reo Māori and intellectual property

Māori Language Week 2017 is here, and the theme for this week is Kia ora te reo Māori – let’s give life to the Māori language.

This week, we will examine how our intellectual property system can help to breathe life into the Maori language, and also provide some suggestions on how our intellectual property system could be improved.

Our intellectual property system

In Aotearoa (New Zealand), our intellectual property system grants registered and unregistered rights in exchange for creations of innovation. The creators of innovations are granted monopoly rights for a period for personal economic benefit but are required to turn over their innovations to the public domain at the end of the period. This is often described as a social contract to encourage innovation, but others believe this process is simply a reward for labour.

Given the underlying nature of the intellectual property system, it is difficult to envisage how this system could help give life to the Māori language. But in the absence of any legislative recognition or protection of mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge), we are working with Māori to do exactly that.

Using the intellectual property system to give life to te reo Māori

Under the Trade Marks Act, it is possible to obtain monopoly rights in Māori kupu (words) and imagery. Māori organisations across the motu (country) are utilising the trade mark system to supplement their inherent rights in iwi names, iwi imagery and logos, tipuna names and tipuna imagery by obtaining registered trade mark rights.

These registered trade mark rights serve two purposes.

Firstly, trade mark registrations owned by whānau, hapū, and iwi help to prevent misuse and appropriation by placing third parties on notice of Māori rights.

Secondly, trade mark registrations owned by whānau, hapū, and iwi help to breathe new life into those kupu and imagery, ensuring the legacy of those kupu and imagery are intact and remain with whānau, hapū, and iwi.

We also work with Māori to prevent misuse, misappropriation, and registration of mātauranga Māori as trade marks.

A tool that helps with this process is section 17(2) in the Act that currently prevents the registration of marks that would be considered offensive in use, and in particular, includes marks that would be considered offensive to Māori.

We will discuss in more detail later in the week the scope of this provision and how useful or not it has been since it was introduced.

We are also constantly exploring ways in which we can assist in maintaining mātauranga Māori.

In particular, we work with Māori to monitor third parties’ activities, which includes monitoring the trade marks register, birth names register, companies register, patents register, and plant variety rights register. Where necessary, we object early to prevent any third party registrations that seek to monopolise for themselves mātauranga Māori, including iwi names, iwi imagery and logos, tipuna names and tipuna imagery.

While our intellectual property system was not designed to give life to te reo Māori, Māori being inherent innovators, are utilising the system in new and unique ways to assist in the protection of mātauranga Māori, and help breathe life back into te reo Māori.