What is public domain?

The public domain refers to material that was once protected by copyright law but that now can be used and exploited by anyone and everyone without authorization, and without the obligation to pay fees or enter into license agreements for use. Public domain material is no longer protected by copyright due to the expiry of the term of protection, or if the conditions of protection are no longer fulfilled. The nature of the public domain is under active discussion. The role of the public domain is critical to Indigenous, traditional and local communities because particular expressions are either not protected by current copyright laws, or have been ‘authored’ by non-Indigenous people and due to the time-period have fallen into the public domain. To the extent that Native, First Nations, Aboriginal and Indigenous knowledge is in the public domain, this means that it may be freely used by artists, writers, researchers, industry and/or any other user. Native, First Nations, Aboriginal and Indigenous peoples and communities contest the conditions that allow their cultural expressions, knowledge systems and cultural heritage to be in the public domain.

We recognize that the public domain status of cultural heritage material poses special problems for Native, First Nations, Aboriginal and Indigenous communities and we have developed the TK Labels specifically to try and deal with the continued lack of control. In this sense the TK Labels are a tool for providing relevant cultural information for this public domain material. We believe that if people have more information through the TK Labels, this will change how Indigenous public domain material will be used and circulated, and how communities can be contacted, involved and engaged as the rightful and ongoing custodians of their cultural heritage. We believe that the TK Labels will help external users make better and more informed decisions about how, when and if it is appropriate to use Native, First Nations, Aboriginal and Indigenous cultural heritage. Labeling helps uninformed publics make different decisions and therefore adds capacity to act and behave more ethically, fairly and equitably towards Native, First Nations, Aboriginal and Indigenous peoples and their cultural heritage.