What is a protocol?

Protocols are guidelines, rules and forms of governance that emanate from local contexts. They function as a means for changing people’s understanding of an issue — for instance, how a ceremony or a song should be heard and used — and how people should act in relation to it. In the context of the sharing, usage and storage of indigenous knowledge, protocols are being utilized as a strategic way of increasing reflective behavior around Indigenous rights in cultural knowledge and resource use.

Protocols function as a means for changing people’s understanding of an issue, and thus, how they might act in relation to it. In the context of the sharing, usage and storage of indigenous knowledge, protocols are being utilized as a strategic way of increasing reflective behavior around Indigenous rights in cultural knowledge and resource use. One clear advantage of protocols is that they can be flexible and adaptable to specific contexts and local interests. This makes them ideal tools for guidance on appropriate and/or ethical behavior and practice. In the absence of formal legal intellectual property mechanisms for recognizing and protecting rights in indigenous cultural knowledge, and in ever increasing contexts where relationships with Indigenous peoples are sought, or where Indigenous knowledge is used, protocols are providing a productive tool for negotiating new kinds of equitable relationships.

The word protocol itself derives from the Greek word protokollen meaning ‘table of contents’ or ‘first sheet’ and implying guidance and instruction in reading, addressing and understanding a subject. In our contemporary moment, protocols can be broadly understood as context driven policy. They can be designed to provide guidance and instruction when dealing with issues that are sensitive, and are especially helpful when the parties have differing expectations and value systems. In some instances, protocols can resemble memorandums of understanding, but can be much more expansive in addressing specific issues regarding consent, benefit sharing, relevant laws, community practice and therefore facilitate the development of future equitable relationships.