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Voices from the dead: the uneasy case of indigenous cultural expression

Ida Madieha Abdul Ghani Azmi (Civil Law Department, International Islamic University Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

International Journal of Law and Management

ISSN: 1754-243X

Article publication date: 10 July 2017




Traditional cultural expression (TCE) includes music, dance, art, designs, names, signs and symbols, performances, ceremonies, architectural forms, handicrafts and narratives or many other artistic or cultural expressions [World Intellectual Property Office (WIPO)]. To constitute TCEs, the expressions must form part of the identity and heritage of a traditional or indigenous community and need to be passed down from generation to generation (Kuprecht, 2014). This paper aims to analyse the protection of TCE in Malaysia by focusing on the Mah Meri tribe. This paper examines copyright over TCE, recordation as a means of preserving a dying tradition and customary practices and native law.


Information is drawn from personal discussions with the weavers and carvers of the Mah Meri tribe, and a focus group discussion with subject matter experts. As a way of comparison, a personal visit has been made to Sarawak Biodiversity Centre, Sarawak Native Courts, the Dayak Iban Association and Dayak Bidayuh Association.


The research found that copyright law has no specific provision for the protection of TCEs. Customary practices of the indigenous people and the native law of Sarawak have limited effect outside their traditional domain. Recordation and documentation of TCEs are the prime initiatives, but the documents or the recordings do not carry any legal status.

Research limitations/implications

The research is limited only to the Mah Meri tribe with a comparison drawn to the Dayak Iban and Dayak Bidayuh tribe.

Practical implications

The research examines the practical implications of copyright and recording and documentation of cultural expression in Malaysia.

Social implications

The research sets to unearth and highlight the ideation process in a tribal setting and how that clashes with the formal creation setting in a modern intellectual property system.


This paper was presented at the IAITL Congress 2013. It also appeared in the Conference Proceedings edited by Slyvia Kieerkgard, but it has not been published in any journals.



Abdul Ghani Azmi, I.M. (2017), "Voices from the dead: the uneasy case of indigenous cultural expression", International Journal of Law and Management, Vol. 59 No. 4, pp. 522-533.



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