The Inuit Igloo Tag – A Trademark Model for Empowering Indigenous Cultural Expression

The Inuit living in Canada have cultivated an artistic reputation worldwide for their distinctive styles of painting, carving, and block printing. In 1949, a collection of Inuit artwork debuted in Montreal, attracting unexpected interest and acclaim. This attention spurred a growing trend of contemporary art and craftsmanship which has proved to be incredibly profitable for many Inuit. 

In 2017, the Department of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs commissioned the Impact of the Inuit Arts Economy Study that showed that 26% of Inuit participated in artmaking and through this generated around $64 million in economic impact. With many Inuit facing difficulties entering into the wage economy, artistry has been promoted by the Government of Nunavut as a way to generate income while still participating in a land-based economic sector and maintaining cultural connections. And while Western-centric IP systems have often isolated Indigenous groups from seeking protection of their cultural expression, Inuit civil society and the federal government have developed an effective trademark regime to ensure legitimacy and safeguard Inuit art from appropriation.

In 1958, the federal government established the Igloo Tag Trademark to become a symbol for the authenticity of Inuit art, to assist viewers and purchasers in choosing art that was verifiably made by an Inuk. Physical tags are attached to the artwork to identify the artist’s name, their community, the title of the work, and the date of completion. The Igloo Tag has been widely used since, and it was transferred to the control of the Inuit Art Foundation in 2017 in response to calls for Inuit-led management of the trademark. All legal rights to the trademark were transferred to the Foundation, as well as the complete control of its administration and enforcement. 

The Foundation issues three types of licences: artist associations or non-profit organizations, Inuit art retailers, and Inuit art distributors. Licensees receive a unique identification number and are prohibited from allowing others to use the trademark. Individual artists cannot hold the trademark licence and must sell their artwork through a licensed organization to have the Igloo Tag applied. These restrictions limit private sale options but aid many artists with the export of their work from often remote locations. With the management of the trademark in Inuit control, the Foundation is consulting stakeholders to ensure that the trademark system will expand to represent more Inuit voices and make the operation of the trademark as accessible and culturally relevant as possible. This approach is consistent with the international quest for equitable access, benefit sharing and inclusive economic framework for indigenous creativity and innovation. Progress in this came in 2018 when Lori Idlout became the first Inuk to hold a licence to the Igloo Tag for carvings sold through her Iqaluit carvings gallery. 

Further results from the Impact of the Inuit Arts Economy Study show that the Igloo Tag brought tangible economic value to the licensed art. On average, consumers are willing to pay an additional $117 for artwork legitimized by the trademark. Many collectors will only purchase Inuit art if it comes with the trademark, showing the high value of authenticity in the industry.  Overall, the use of the Igloo Tag has brought approximately $3.2 million annually to the Inuit arts economy. Facing threats from a saturated art market, the trademark helps Inuit artists receive fair pay for their art and decrease the proliferation of appropriated artwork. 

Since receiving control of the trademark, the Inuit Arts Foundation has begun to determine the future directions of the trademark and its usage guidelines. Currently, the trademark can only be applied to physical artwork and excludes film and music. With throat singing increasing in popularity outside Inuit communities, there has been discussion on extending the Igloo Tag’s verification of authenticity to more diverse forms of art. Criticisms of the trademark focus on its limited application as reinforcing static pre-contact forms of expression and marginalizing the modern Inuit voice. There has been increasing recognition of diversity within Inuit art, such as the growing voice of Nunatsiavummiut artists. Until 1991 art in the Nunatsiavut (Northern Labrador) regional style could not receive the Igloo Tag and was labelled inauthentic by collectors as a result. The Nunatsiavummiut were not included in the Indian Act, and as a result, could not participate in federally funded art initiatives. This lack of support and legitimization marginalized their voice within the Inuit art landscape and decreased the value of their artwork. The promotion of the Igloo Tag has been so successful that art that does not fulfill its authenticity criteria is often hidden from the market. Nunatsiavut art became included in mainstream conceptions of Inuit art through civil advocacy to the federal government. Without a similar expansion of the trademark or the creation of other authentication systems, the Igloo Tag runs the risk of promoting a one-dimensional version of Inuit art as the only true and authentic style.

The market for Inuit art has reached a global scale but the scope of the Igloo Tag trademark has not expanded in turn. Artists and the Inuit Art Foundation have expressed interest in registering the trademark in other countries or internationally to curb false reproduction of Inuit art. They are not unique in this, as many Indigenous nations have sought property rights solutions to transnational appropriation. The World Intellectual Property Organization has provided domestic guidelines for trademarks and is currently negotiating the framework for international protection of indigenous knowledge, including indigenous cultural expressions.

While its current scope of protection is limited, the Igloo Tag trademark demonstrates the effective use of intellectual property protections to uphold the integrity of Inuit cultural expression and facilitate economic growth and empowerment through the art industry. The Inuit Art Foundation can expand the trademark framework on many fronts to protect the growing frontier of Inuit cultural expressions. With the Foundation currently undertaking a stakeholder analysis to determine future directions, it will be interesting to see the next stage of the Igloo Tag and to see how Canadian and international intellectual property frameworks respond to artists pushing the boundaries of their cultural expression. 

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