Scholarly Publishing and Open Access blog

The latest news and answers to your questions about scholarly publishing and open access.

Beyond copyright: traditional knowledge and biocultural labels

Published by Alison Moore

This blog post was written by Samantha Snodgrass, SFU Library co-op student.

In recent years, there has been a movement in scholarly publishing towards making more content Open Access - defined by SPARC as “the free, immediate, online availability of research articles coupled with the rights to use these articles fully in the digital environment” (“Open Access”). Open Access would expand access to research and scholarship that is often behind paywalls and inaccessible to people outside of academia. In an age of mis- and dis-information, that access may be more important than ever.

This movement raises the question - should all information be open? Some information is commonly agreed upon as private, such as personal information (which is often protected by law). Yet not all information that should be private or restricted has always been treated with such care.

Indigenous knowledge, open collections, and copyright

Indigenous knowledge in particular has often been collected without consent and displayed or shared without regard to cultural context. This knowledge appears within publications like books and articles, in addition to physical collections held in museums, archives, and libraries. As Dana Reijerkerk discusses in “UX design in online catalogs: Practical issues with implementing traditional knowledge (TK) labels” (2020), the advent of the internet means the possibility of sharing collections more broadly than ever before. Increasing numbers of these institutions are creating their own open digital collections, which may contradict cultural protocols around items held in their collections.

Copyright law is the main avenue available in Canada for protecting intellectual property and the rights of creators. However, copyright laws do not adequately address the intricacies of Indigenous knowledge. The Program for Open Scholars and Educators (POSE) at UBC notes the following conflicts (2021):

  • “Copyright focuses on economic benefits of knowledge and fails to recognize the cultural, spiritual and communal importance of Indigenous creative works.
  • Copyright focuses on individual creators and fails to recognize the communal nature of producing and caring for the creative works.
  • Copyright provides limits to the length of time in which an object can be protected which fails to recognize the intangible spiritual nature of the object that is situated in Indigenous identity across time.”

Traditional knowledge and biocultural labels

Traditional Knowledge (TK) and Biocultural (BC) Labels, created by the organization Local Contexts, can help address the gap between copyright laws and cultural protocols.

TK Labels are designed for use by Indigenous communities to educate non-Indigenous users about cultural protocols surrounding access and use of their digital cultural heritage. BC Labels address appropriate use of Indigenous data (DivSeek International Network Inc., TK/BC Labels Initiative). A piece of information may legally be in the public domain, however to the community it came from it may be intended for much narrower use. For example, TK Labels can indicate that a piece of information is typically only shared among women. BC Labels can indicate provenance (which groups hold primary authority over the data). Both sets of labels can also indicate whether the information is restricted from commercial use.

TK Labels may be useful for researchers working on digital humanities projects related to Indigenous knowledge. BC Labels may be useful to researchers looking to publish data relating to Indigenous groups. Both can serve as a reminder to consider cultural ethics in scholarly research.

Mukurtu CMS, which supports the use of TK and BC Labels, emphasizes that while the labels can be used by collecting and cultural institutions that are not Indigenous-led, this must be done in collaboration with Indigenous communities with the intention to deepen Indigenous representation and agency in these projects (Center for Digital Scholarship and Curation at Washington State University, 2022).

TK and BC Labels are often placed near copyright information, but do not have a legal component that enforces the use and consumption of items like copyright and licenses do. Instead, they educate users on the context of material and ask them to consider the context of how this information is intended to be used. They can be presented alongside copyright information, encouraging users to see those instructions for use as linked.

See TK and BC Labels in action:

More information about TK and BC Labels:

You may also be interested in our post on the CARE Principles for Indigenous Data Governance.


Center for Digital Scholarship and Curation at Washington State University (2022, April 26). Traditional knowledge labels FAQ. Mukurtu.

DivSeek International Network Inc. (n.d.). TK/BC Labels Initiative. DivSeek Intl.

Program for Open Scholars and Educators (2021, October 25). Traditional Knowledge. The University of British Columbia.

Reijerkerk, D. (2020). UX design in online catalogs: Practical issues with implementing traditional knowledge (TK) labels. First Monday, 25(8).

SPARC (n.d.). Open Access. SPARC.