SACRAMENTO, Calif. - A California judge recently issued a permanent
injunction after an out-of court settlement against a Sierra
foothills-based artist who recorded a Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians
tribal ceremony and sold CDs, tapes and videos of those recordings.
The artist - Lorenzo Baca, himself an American Indian of Isleta Pueblo and
Mescalero Apache extraction - now must return the recordings to the tribe's
attorney to be destroyed.
The tribe sued Baca after it became aware that he was selling copies of the
ceremony at various museum stores, a nearby state park and pow wows.
The recordings apparently originated from the early 1990s. Press reports in
the Sonora (Calif.) Union-Democrat indicated that Baca claimed he secured
permission to film the ceremony from the late Me-Wuk elder Brown Tadd. Los
Angeles-based tribal attorney Bob Lyon said the content of the film
featured Tadd teaching songs and traditions to four youths, basically a
rendering of an age-old Me-Wuk tradition.
The Union-Democrat also reported that Baca conducted research on Me-Wuk
culture for his master's thesis at the University of California, Los
Tadd died in 1992, shortly after Baca made his recordings. After apparently
doing nothing with them for 10 years, Baca began selling copies. Lyon
estimated that 400 CDs, in addition to several audio and videotapes of the
ceremony, were sold.
Lyon, who specializes in intellectual property, explained he argued two
separate legal points. Since the recording featured minors, under
California law the consent of the minor's parent or guardian was mandatory.
Lyon claimed that the parents of the four youth in the video never gave
The major point, according to Lyon, is that the songs, ceremonies, clothing
and ritual are all common law copyright. This in itself is not covered by
federal copyright laws, which only recognize the rights of the individual
original author for the length of their lifetime. However, although Lyon
said that there is not much in the way of legal precedent on what
constitutes a common law copyright, he contended that the various legal
principles are quite clear.
A law authored by the late congressman and former entertainer Sonny Bono
and carried by his wife, who took his place when he died, extended those
rights to encompass an additional 70 years past that individual's death and
remains within that person's family.
Lyon said Tadd's descendants deny Baca's claim that Tadd wanted the culture
preserved in this format.
Regarding the recording of American Indian ceremonies in general, Lyon
contended that American Indian tribal culture is contemplated under a
"collective ownership" that has a shelf life as long as that culture
continues to function.
"It's really a question of who controls the tribe's culture," he said.
Lyon argued that collective ownership applied in this case because most
aspects of tribal culture are collective, even noting that land, such as
reservations and other property, is held in common among American Indian
Though the case is settled, it still has potential reverberations for any
recordings made of American Indian tribal ceremonies that are made without
the consent of the tribe.
Lyon said other tribes have contacted him about the matter and that he
hoped one of these cases will go to trial to establish a legal precedent.
If that happenes, it could have ramifications across Indian country as a
precedent in a case like this would give tribes, as a whole, legal
protection for the distribution and sale of their ceremonies and,
potentially, other cultural items. It would not affect individual tribal
members and artists, who could still sell their individual works.
Baca's San Francisco-based attorney, Brooke Oliver, could not be reached
and other attorneys at her firm were not familiar with the case. Calls to
Baca's home were not returned by press time.
Oliver is allowed to hold the only copies of Baca's recordings that may
remain in case further legal action takes place.