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A familiar story is told in Indian Country: a researcher arrives on a Native American reservation and begins recording ceremonial songs and oral histories; years later tribal members find, often to their horror, that these sensitive materials are available for sale, download, or streaming to the public. This scenario aptly describes the life of numerous sound recordings made on federally recognized Indian reservations prior to 1972, whose ownership status remains uninterrogated due to the complex overlap and ambiguities of copyright and federal Indian law. Yet recently, owing to an increased sense of self-determination and autonomy, Native American tribes have begun to assert ownership claims to pre-1972 sound recordings made on tribal lands. This is significant for lawmakers and judges, as recordings of Native Americans performing ceremonies, songs, oral histories, and other oral literature make up a substantial portion of the media housed in American museums, universities, and government institutions. This Note seeks to shed greater light on who owns these recordings, and how future developments in this area of copyright law should take into account tribal intellectual property interests going forward.


Winner of the 2017 Andrew D. Fried Memorial Prize.