Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori (Māori Language Week ), is an annual celebration of the Māori language (te reo Māori) held in the third week of September. The initiative, which this year takes place from September 12 to 19, aims to inspire New Zealanders to speak te reo Māori proudly as part of a larger effort to revitalise the language. It encompasses Maori Language Day (September 14) which recognises the day in 1972 when the petition was presented to parliament to revitalise te reo Māori and which ultimately resulted in this week of celebration. Today, fifty (50) years on, newscasters greet in Māori; weather reporters call places by their original, Māori names; there are dedicated Māori-language schools, radio stations and even a television channel with 100 per cent Māori language programming.

During Māori Language Week in 2021, Aotearoa New Zealand born music artist Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor, known by her stage name ‘Lorde’, released a digital EP “Te Ao Mārama” which included renditions of five tracks from her album released three weeks earlier “Solar Power”, translated into te reo Māori. In one of her regular email-updates to fans, Lorde wrote that pakeha (non-Māori) artists “have been lending their support to the language revitalisation movement for years, and as someone with global recognition, [she] knew at some stage [she] would do the same,” which she did by enlisting the help of the Māori rangatira (leaders); Dame Hinewehi Mohi, Sir Tīmoti Kāretu, Hana Mereraiha, and Hēmi Kelly to bring the translations to life.

Te reo Māori is a very metaphorical language associated with a worldview that is more connected with nature. As such, “it’s very easy to do a literal translation, but that’s meaningless to both cultures — it’s just words,” as explained by Māori language and culture expert, Sir Timoti Karetu. To reflect the degree of nuance required, Hana Mereraiha, one of the collaborators on Lorde’s “Te Ao Mārama” was granted creative licence for three of the songs she translated, to take the translations beyond the literal and to another metaphorical place.

What intellectual property considerations should you take into account when engaging with indigenous languages?

  1. Intellectual Property Rights

Indigenous Knowledge (IK) should be recognised and respected within the framework of of Article 31 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples which includes the right ‘to maintain ,control, protect and develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions’. This includes indigenous peoples’ rights to protect their intellectual property by available mechanisms and benefit commercially while preventing exploitation or inappropriate use.

In Aotearoa New Zealand, Mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) includes the Māori world view and perspectives, as well as Māori creativity and cultural practices including Te Reo Māori, and is protected by specific patent and trade mark law provisions. These provisions help prevent the registration of trade marks or granting of patents that would be considered offensive by Māori or contrary to Māori values. The Intellectual Property Office of New Zealand (IPONZ) has established Māori Advisory Committees that provide advice to the Commissioner on trade mark applications that include Māori words or designs.

  1. Copyright in translations

In Aotearoa New Zealand, a translation of a poem or song lyrics is generally protected by copyright as a literary work. This is separate from copyright in the underlying work, which may also be protected. However, owners of copyright in literary, dramatic and musical works have the exclusive right to make an adaptation of their work, including by making a translation, and therefore a translator must gain permission from the copyright owner to make a translation. In effect, this means that copyright in the translation and copyright in the original work might owned by different people, i.e. the translator and the original author. In order to perform or record a song which has been translated into te reo Māori, permission will also need to be sought from the owner of copyright in the underlying music.

  1. Consultation

As demonstrated by Lorde, for anyone wanting to engage with or use indigenous languages, it is important to consult relevant indigenous communities and stakeholders based on the values of collaboration and respect. Advice should always be sought from the relevant stakeholders regarding translations and preferences and protocols around terminology.