Intellectual Property

Lawyers' War Dance

Tribal ritual = intellectual property?

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In February the New Zealand government declared the Ka Mate haka to be the intellectual property of the Ngati Toa tribe. The haka, a traditional Maori war dance, is performed before games by the New Zealand national rugby team, the All Blacks. The team also uses the dance for promotional and marketing purposes, to the dismay of many in the tribe, who say they're tired of companies profiting from the Ka Mate.

The deal was meant to "protect the haka from inappropriate use," Ngati Toa chief negotiator Matiu Rei told the London Telegraph. Prime Minister John Keys said the agreement was about "cultural redress…not about a financial issue or an attempt to restrict New Zealanders."

The Ngati Toa's first target: England's Royal Shakespeare Company. The thespians enraged Maori activists by mimicking the haka in an adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew. The show, which ended its year-long run on March 7, included a scene in which drunken men perform the haka outside a strip club, as rabid rugby fans are wont to do. The company's artistic director, Michael Boyd, noted in a statement that "the irony is that the scene in our production is an attack on precisely the cultural vandalism of which we have been accused."

Although the Ngati Toa now officially own the dance, the recognition is mainly symbolic, since they have no means of enforcement. The tribe has tried to trademark the Ka Mate, but the New Zealand Intellectual Property Office refused the application. If only it were granted the trademark, the tribe could claim up to NZ$1.5 million from the New Zealand Rugby Union.

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