The ‘Unnatural’ Legal Framing of Traditional Knowledge and Forms of Cultural Expression

13 Pages Posted: 12 Dec 2012

See all articles by Susan Farran

Susan Farran

Northumbria University; University of the South Pacific

Date Written: December 5, 2012


The consequences of social and economic development in Pacific Island States are far reaching and on a number of levels illustrate the head-on collision of endogamous and exogamous forces. This is particularly evident in the ways in which manifestations of cultural property and traditional knowledge are harnessed and regulated. Laws inspired by western liberal thinking and capitalist economies see intellectual effort as giving rise to property rights and their related remedies, which are premised on individualism, exclusion and the commodity value of knowledge and creativity and its physical manifestation. Traditional, indigenous perceptions are however different. While knowledge may be power it is not always exclusive, individual or commercial. Cultural property creates networks of exchange and reflects continuums between the past and the present, between people and generations, and people and places. Increasingly there is pressure internally and externally to exploit and use cultural property and traditional knowledge for development objectives. Linked to this is a real or perceived need to adopt or incorporate a range of legal measures. Many of these are reflections of the colonial past of Pacific islands and an illustration of the neo-colonial present. There are however some attempts to moderate this onslaught and to take steps to shape the regulatory framework in a way that bridges the traditional and the modern.

This paper considers the challenges facing Pacific island states seeking to articulate laws which meet the demands of modernity and satisfy the values of tradition. It looks in particular at the problems posed by unfamiliar legal concepts and the consequences of trying to bring traditional knowledge and cultural property within the framework of laws originating from very different cultural and normative backgrounds and concludes with a critical assessment of the contemporary legal picture.

Keywords: Intellectual property, indigenous, colonial, traditional knowledge, cultural property, law

JEL Classification: O10, O31, K00, K39, O56, K39, N57

Suggested Citation

Farran, Susan, The ‘Unnatural’ Legal Framing of Traditional Knowledge and Forms of Cultural Expression (December 5, 2012). Available at SSRN: or

Susan Farran (Contact Author)

Northumbria University ( email )

City Campus East
208, City Campus East-1
Newcastle upon tyne, NE1 8ST
United Kingdom

University of the South Pacific ( email )

Laucala Campus

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