Representation vs Exploitation, Part III: Intellectual Property & Storytelling Cultures

copyrightIn the chaotic news cyclone cycle produced by The Trump Regime, you might have missed Joseph Boyden crawling back out from under his rock. This time, it has been revealed that his sticky fingers snagged an actual Indigenous author’s story and plagiarized it. This would, in itself be bad enough. But Boyden chose to enthusiastically dig his hole deeper, in the process revealing something about colonialism and how Western society views oral histories, particularly the histories and mythologies of colonzied peoples.

Although storytelling relies on outside inspiration– and in some cases explicitly builds on existing work– not all outside inspirations come with the same level of responsibility. Obviously, Western society recognizes this with the paired concepts of intellectual property and public domain.  Intellectual property (in this case copyright) acknowledges the labor that went into the creation of a story, that the creator should have control over the material and any profits it generates, and that the material is not ‘up for grabs’ for others to take credit. It also differentiates as to whether harm is done by someone using the material– we see stealing intellectual property for profit differently than creating fanfiction for free. Public domain, materials, by contrast, are explicitly considered fair game. A more through explanation of how and why works end up in the public domain is available here.

The concept of intellectual property is not unique to Western societies, although it is not exclusively tied to monetary gain. It may be ‘restricted knowledge’ reserved for specialists who have committed to years of study, where claiming expertise as an outsider who hasn’t put in the labor is fraudulent use (imagine someone who is claiming to be a lawyer after reading the Wikipedia page on tax law for a Western analogy). It may be restricted due to religious or cultural significance, and so on.

There are also considerations of context. The first is how that culture tells and uses stories and applies whenever one is writing outside one’s own experience. We need to be respectful of how people talk about themselves– especially marginalized groups– and take a cue from the culture we’re writing about, instead of presuming to know better. The second is specific to colonized societies. It’s bluntly exploitative to take the intellectual property of colonized people without permission and monetize it for private gain. This includes monetizing historical trauma by stealing oral histories and repackaging them for consumption and gawking by the colonizer just as Boyden does (again, for private gain that does not benefit the community this knowledge was taken from). There are, unfortunately, plenty of other authors who do the same thing.

The underlying problem is the framing of colonized people and their wealth (be that resources, skills, labor, or intellectual/artistic property)  as a natural resource, free for the taking of any colonizer who happens to wander along and take a fancy to what they see. Boyden not only claimed– in direct contradiction of thousands of years of Indigenous tradition across nations– that oral stories are public property, but literally describes compares Indigenous storytellers to an inanimate natural resource.  Not only is behavior like Boyden’s theft, but also silences the original creators and their viewpoints in favor of an inauthentic version repackaged in a way that reassures the colonizer.

This is why respect is absolutely critical when you’re researching stories that fall outside of your lived experience. Sometimes the answer to our writerly request to access some information will be ‘no, it’s not for you’, and we need to be comfortable accepting this fact and backing off. We need to listen to members of that culture and accept their  constructive criticism (Protip: use consultants, language experts, and sensitivity readers– and pay them!).  I’m all in favor of multicultural representation, but it absolutely positively needs to be done right.



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