Who Owns Folklore
a discussion paper by Dr Graham Seal
INTRODUCTIONNational folk cultures have usually been collected, preserved, celebrated and studied as aspects of culture and society. In Australia we think of, for example, the extensive bush ballad tradition as an element of a large and diffuse, but definitely identifiable part of our history, national consciousness and cultural expression. There is a considerable body of scholarly, literary, artistic and other treatment of such traditions as aspects of national cultural expression and identity.
But this body of frequently intangible but definite expressions, artistic and material has rarely been thought of as a national resource with an economic as well as a cultural value.
Is it possible - and desirable - to establish a basis for valorising, conserving and developing Australian folklore of place in the same way that environmental, built and moveable heritages are valued, conserved and developed for the national benefit?
Many of the legal and conceptual problems associated with indigenous culture as intellectual property also apply to non-indigenous, informally transmitted heritage. While these matters have received some attention, there has been little discussion of the situation regarding the broader field of folklore as cultural property.
This paper raises a number of issues related to such concerns with the aim of stimulating discussion among those with an interest in folklore. It covers the need to record folklore, folklore as an economic resource, the question of 'public domain' and 'community right' and some of the issues involved. Needles to say, these matters are addressed from the perpective of a folklorist rather than a legal expert. Nevertheless, the matters broached are relevant culturally as well as economically and legally.
THE NEED TO IDENTIFY, COLLATE AND PRESERVE FOLKLOREBecause it is fundamental to many forms of human practice and expression, folklore provides an insight into the most powerful motivators of social groups. Its close relationship to sense of identity and belonging imparts shared meaning to the lives of individuals and projects an otherwise intangible sense of the uniqueness of the experiences, practices and expressions of the social groups to which individuals belong. 
The collection, preservation, study and uses of folklore has many benefits. These include:
- Cultural - giving us all a better sense of who we are and how we relate to each other. This is especially valuable in a multicultural society, where conflicts between groups are frequently based on folkloric notions and assumptions.
- Closely related to the above point is the role of folklore in establishing, expressing and reinforcing a sense of identity and of belonging. In the case of Australia it is the knowledge of those often-intangible elements of lore, legend and language that contributes our sense of 'Australian-ness', an intangible but definite facet of everyday life.
- Educational - Folklore can - and is - used in various ways in education. These include promoting a better understanding of ourselves and our relations with each other, especially those of 'other' cultural, ethnic or religious groups, the relationship between folklore and the past, family folklore, local lore and legend
- Artistic - Many folk traditions, while fading or perhaps obsolete, have an ongoing appeal in the modern era when groups of enthusiasts frequently revive them, creating often substantial organisations, networks and other means of practising or observing them, including folk festivals, folk clubs, etc.
- Related to many of the activities noted as 'artistic' is the more intangible satisfaction that many in the community drive from taking part in revival and associated activities. There is a manifest need for many individuals and groups to feel that they are maintaining, reviving or otherwise preserving expressions and practices that are felt to be 'old' and meaningful. While this is often scorned, especially by academics, as 'antiquarianism', 'romanticism', 'folklorism'' and 'fakelore', the long history of folk revivalism in the western world and the considerable number of people involved in it demonstrates a powerful, if often untutored, popular need to take part in activities labelled 'folk'. It is, in many ways, akin to the 'heritage' and family history movements and represents a popular need to possess and preserve aspects and elements of the real or imagined past. 
- Economic value. Some aspects of folklore, including customs, arts, crafts, costume etc. have a graphic visual appeal that projects the distinctiveness of local experience, in this case WA, and which have valuable potential for sensitive and appropriate commercial development.
- Because folklore often changes so rapidly, it is important to document it while the opportunity exists