Managing rights in digitized indigenous music

Author:Wend Wendland
Position:Director, Traditional Knowledge Division, WIPO

It was beneath the old acacia tree where the community elders meet that Ole Kaunga and Ole Tingoi turned to me back in 2006 with an idea that could help the Maasai people of East Africa open up a modern-day revenue stream. “Let’s build a library of our music and sell it online,” Ole Kaunga said. “Like iTunes.”


Ole Kaunga and Ole Tingoi are members of the Maasai community at Il Ngwesi, Laikipia, Kenya.

And so began an ambitious partnership that seeks to deliver concrete benefits to the community through recording, archiving and commercializing Maasai music and other cultural expressions.

This groundbreaking project lies at the crossroads of heritage preservation, self-determination, rural development, community entrepreneurship, promotion of creativity and bridging the digital divide.

The United Nations has even made a film about it.

Putting indigenous and local communities in the driving seat

The project recognizes both the benefits and dangers of new technology for indigenous and local communities. While new technologies can preserve and disseminate indigenous heritage like never before, it is critically important that communities themselves are empowered to make informed decisions about how to manage resulting intellectual property (IP) rights in line with their cultural values and development goals.

That is why this pilot project is seeking to put indigenous and local communities in the driving seat. The project is being rolled out by WIPO in partnership with the American Folklife Centre at the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., and the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, North Carolina, United States. As the project launched, the National Museums of Kenya also lent a valuable helping hand.

The central idea is for the Maasai to shift from being the objects of study to the producers of their own documentary archive, and as such, owners of the rights in those new recordings.

John Ole Tingoi and Anne Tome of Il Ngwesi, who were selected by the community for their interest and aptitude, received hands-on training in the documentary techniques and archival skills needed to undertake effective community-based cultural conservation. WIPO provided the community with IP training to enable them to manage their IP rights plus a basic kit of cameras, sound recorders, computers and software to get the project off the ground.

Supporting rights management

The project’s overriding aim is to ensure the Maasai themselves are in a position to manage the IP information relating to each of their recordings. IP rights management is therefore a critical component of the project. This includes identifying who the rights holders are and how these works may be used in line with customary laws and practices.

Rights management is as relevant to the...

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