Who can protect the inukshuk? Maybe Canada?

Images of the Inuit inukshuk are displayed everywhere, it seems, from keychains to beer bottles. But is this a violation of Inuit intellectual property rights?


IQALUIT — You don’t have to look far to find images of the inukshuk on sale — representations of Nunavut’s most familiar symbol are displayed on everything key chains, fridge magnets, tee-shirts, and everything in between.

Now there’s even a brand of beer called “True North,” which features an image of an inukshuk on its label and packaging.

The beer, brewed by Magnotta Brewery in Ontario, is sold in four varieties, each one distinguished by a reproduction of a different painting by artist Ken Kirkby, a former northern resident.

“We’re not trying to take advantage of a symbol of Northern people,” owner Gage Magnotta explained.

Magnotta defended his company’s use of the inukshuk symbol to market beer, saying that the choice of packaging has more to do with the promotion of art than cultural appropriation.

Beer hucksters borrow inukshuk

“But Magnotta insists his “pure,” flavorful beer does have a lot in common with the North.

The beer isn’t sold yet in Nunavut’s bars, but Magnotta said that if it were, Nunavut drinkers would support his company’s use of the familiar symbol.

“When they taste the beer, they’ll understand that we’re in the spirit of the North,” said Magnotta.

But there is opposition, official and public, against the use of Inuit symbols to promote southern commerical ventures like Magnotta Brewery’s beer.

“The inukshuk is an inappropriate symbol for this company to portray itself with,” said Monica Ell, vice-president of the Inuit women’s association, Pauktuutit. “They should think of a logo that is unique to their area. It’s inspiring for people to copy, but it’s inappropriate.”

Beer isn’t the only product to use the inukshuk as a marketing tool. A Toronto Dominion subsidiary, Evergreen Wealth Management, displays an inukshuk on its web page and marketing materials. Phone companies and Internet suppliers are using the inukshuk name, too.

The Inuit traditional notion of “ikiriaq” used to protect an individual’s songs, or “pisiit,” from being used by others.

But under existing Canadian law, it may be difficult to protect traditional symbols like the inukshuk.

Federal legislation designed to protect intellectual property does protect works of art, trademarks, and technologies.

But these must be new, original, and distinct in order to be copyrighted or legally protected from use by another party.

Another major hurdle to the copyrighting of a traditional symbol such as the inukshuk is that no single individual can claim ownership of it.

“If the inukshuk was being created today for the very first time, the creator would be able to trademark it,” said Brad Morse, a University of Ottawa law professor who has a longtime interest in aboriginal legal issues.

Since there’s no one person who can claim ownership to the inukshuk, Morse said that existing Canadian laws on intellectual property cannot be applied against those who use inukshuk images.

Flags and coats-of-arms are protected, because trademarks, for example, can’t include official symbols related to federal and provincial governments. This protects the inukshuk emblem on Nunavut’s new flag.

But this doesn’t protect the reproduction of other kinds of inukshuk designs.

Morse said the only option is for either the Nunavut government or the federal government step in to protect the use of the inukshuk.

“The only way I can really see to control the use of the inukshuk and to prevent its abuse would be to regulate its use,” said Morse. “What you would have to do is declare it as part of the patrimony of Canada.”

This would allow some control, but, even then, enforcing this control could prove to be costly.

That’s why the Royal Canadian Mounted Police decided to transfer ownership of its symbols to the entertainment company, Walt Disney Canada, in 1995. The deal was motivated by the RCMP’s frustration at all the RCMP uniforms and symbols that were cropping up areas like pro wrestling and beer commericals.

Walt Disney Canada now oversees the licensing and marketing of the Mounties’ image and rises to its defense when the symbols are misappropriated.

Disney receives 49 per cent of the 10 per cent royalty charged, while the Mounted Police Foundation gets the balance for use in community-based programs.

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