The Production of Indigenous Knowledge in Intellectual Property Law
In 1983 Aboriginal artist Yanggarrny Wunungmurra and the Aboriginal Arts Agency commenced action for copyright infringement against a fabric designer/manufacturer and the proprietor of a retail shop.1 The argument was that the copyright in the bark painting ‘Long necked fresh water tortoises by the ﬁsh trap at Gaanan’ had been infringed when reproduced onto fabric without the artist’s consent. The case was settled with the ﬁrst defendant, the designer, being ordered to pay damages and to supply a list of all persons to whom he had supplied fabric. The second defendant, the retailer, was ordered to deliver all the remaining material to the plaintiﬀ. The case hardly made a ripple in the vast waters of increasing copyright litigation within Australia. In hindsight this is a surprise considering that, at the time, an emerging issue in the Australian political environment was a concern for the protection of ‘expressions of folklore’, namely Aboriginal art.2 Eleven years later another copyright case unfolded in the Northern Territory Federal Court that generated signiﬁcantly more attention.3 Milpurrurru & Others v Indofurn Pty Ltd involved the unauthorised reproduction of Aboriginal art as the designs for a series of impressive carpets intended for the art market. The signiﬁcance of the case lay in the perception that it presented a clear judicial aﬃrmation that Aboriginal art could legitimately secure copyright protection, and the collective interests of Aboriginal owners could be somehow legally secured. While some commentators in the popular media hailed the case as the ‘Mabo of...