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Traditional Cultural Expressions


Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have various rich cultural traditions that are expressed through songs, dances, stories, rituals, visual art and other media.


The phrase ‘Traditional Cultural Expressions’ (TCEs) appears throughout this guidebook because it is the phrase used by the World Intellectual Property Organization. However, it is an imperfect term that fails to capture the variety and vitality in Indigenous arts. The word ‘traditional’ can be interpreted many ways, and it is said here in the most inclusive way possible – it does not at all exclude contemporary , emerging or hybridic styles.


The World Intellectual Property Organization defines Traditional Cultural Expressions as being any form of artistic and literary expression in which traditional culture and knowledge are embodied. They pass between generations and include handmade textiles, paintings, stories, legends, ceremonies, music, songs, rhythms and dance.


Traditional Cultural Expressions can include designs or styles that have meaning to a community and form part of their identity and heritage. The style may appear in many different works of art.


This makes it tricky to properly protect a Traditional Cultural Expression using Western law frameworks such as copyright. Copyright applies only to a specific work, not a style. Copyright belongs to the individual who created the work, but Traditional Cultural Expressions often belong to communities, not individuals.


Customary Laws provide better protection for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Traditional Cultural Expressions. For example, Customary Law may say that only certain people can create artwork with sacred symbols. Artworks, music, stories and performances are intrinsically linked to both community and individual identity. 


Enforcing Customary Law within a Western law framework is difficult. Because there are gaps in legal protection, it is very important to be aware of the moral issues and to follow best ethical practice.




Quick facts: Traditional Cultural Expressions


  • Embody, and are intrinsic to, traditional culture and knowledge.

  • Pass between generations.

  • May include designs, styles and motifs, not just specific artworks.

  • Usually belong to communities, not just individuals.

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