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A blog reader writes:

I am continuing at a painfully slow pace to try to organize old field notes on Language L. [..] I have recordings [from the 1960s]. Some are just word lists of no great significance now. However, others are stories of various kinds and I wonder about reproducing them at least in printed form. My question is about the need to obtain permission from the speaker. I know some speakers have died; some are still alive; others I have no idea about and making contact will be difficult. [But someone is hopefully willing to help]. I have read about the general question of rights but am not sure what is generally considered best practice.

So, at least for people I know are alive and I think I can contact and get a response from, is there a form you can recommend which I could use to obtain permission to reproduce in print the stories they recorded? Does your department have guidelines for this sort of thing?

The only people I am likely to be able to contact have sufficiently good English to know what they are signing. However, for some of the people I recorded a Language L version would be more appropriate, which then brings up the problem of creating such a document in L.

Few speakers currently have web access, although that could change quickly. For example, the number of mobile phones in villages was generally fairly limited until a few months ago. Now it seems that, due to a new phone company arriving in PNG, many people in the village of 3,000 plus people have them. And the phones are used a lot for intra-village communication. It would only take a drop in the current high price of internet access and the arrival of cheaper computers for a similar big change to occur.

Well the short answer is no - our department doesn't have guidelines for publishing material collected in the balmy past when ethics committees were but a dream. We probably should - but they should not be rigid ones,. Does any reader have a nice plain language statement or ideas? Any links?

I suggested AIATSIS's deposit and archive forms as a start, but they're not quite what is being asked for. I didn't have time to go looking further - and the only thing I could find of ours that is tangentially relevant is a plain language information sheet we experimented with for getting permission to archive and re-use material. It's given below - but other people's examples of different types of plain language statements would be great to have. We could maybe even house them on PARADISEC for reference.

Patrick McConvell and Peter Austin alerted me to the World Intellectual Property Organization guidelines on
intangible cultural heritage, which has a lot of links to codes and protocols for fieldwork, as well as links to standard agreements and consent forms.

Here's Peter's summary and comments:

According to WIPO there are three ways informed consent can be granted
(1) in writing - using a form like you suggest
(2) orally - best recorded
(3) third person - where it is culturally or socially appropriate for a third person to grant permission
In Indonesia (3) applies generally, ie. you get permission from the kepala desa (village head) not from individuals.
This also applies to old people who aren't able to understand what you're asking.

Filling forms can frighten people off and make them scared so I'd advise caution with form filling and requesting, especially with non-literates in village situations. Aalso the vocab needs to be carefully looked at, eg. "thesis" in your sheet below, which will be meaningless to many 3rd world people, no?

Draft Information Sheet for Families in the Project P
Our project will finish recording children this year. We are now thinking about the future of the video recordings and the transcripts from the recordings. For every video recording (name of researcher) has made, (name) has written down everything everyone said and this is the transcript. Linguists use transcripts to learn about the way people say things, and things like what language they use or how often they use particular words or parts of language.
We are thinking now about the use of the videos and the transcripts in the future. We would like to get some instructions for using the recordings and transcripts in the future. We are proposing making an agreement with you, that will be valid for ten years. After this time, permission to use the research should be renegotiated, as permission will need to negotiated with the children.

There are three separate areas to think about.

1 Storing the videos and making sure you can get copies
First, we want to make sure that you can easily get copies of the videos in the future. The University X will keep full copies of all of the recordings for at least 5 years. After that the videos could be kept at AIATSIS in Canberra. But it might be hard for you to get copies from Canberra. So we want to make a 1 hour video for each family. This video will have a bit of each recording over the three years of the project. We will give you a DVD or video tape of this collection. We will also store the video file on a computer hard drive. We will leave the hard drive in the community, so that new copies of the DVD can be made, if the old one gets damaged. The organization that agrees to take this hard drive will have to make sure that only the people you give permission can watch the video or make copies.

2 Showing extracts of the videos at conferences and language meetings
In the past, we have asked if we can use short bits of video to show at language meetings and conferences. We want to ask permission for the researchers on our team to keep doing this.

3 New researchers
In the future, other researchers or students might want to work on the recordings and transcripts we have made. They might be students from our University and maybe other places. They might want to work on the transcripts or videos and write a thesis (a report as part of their study) and they might want to publish the report in a book or a journal.

We would like to have an agreement with you showing if you agree or do not agree to let other researchers to work on the video/transcripts of your family. If you agree to let other researcher use the recordings/transcripts in the future, you might want to have conditions in the agreement.

These might be that the researcher has to request permission from you.
The researcher might have to contact you, explain their research interest, and get your permission. The researcher will have to give you a list of the recordings or transcripts that they want to use. They will give you a list of all of the people who were in the video and you can let the researcher know if they need to ask other people for their permission.

Please look at the Agreement Form. Researcher R can explain anything you are not sure about. You can also contact C and Y.

Thank you for participating in the P project.


Wangka Maya of course has its own copyright and recording agreement forms (1 page each), in fairly plain English. We tend to sit and talk people through them to cover all the main points (it can take up to an hour). If there are old people involved we also have a younger relative there who acts as a witness. That way even if the party to the agreement cannot read English, the agreement has been moderated through someone they trust, and they can sign in confidence. Ours also state what the agreed provisions are for the recorded material after the person has passed away - most people opt to have the decision making power passed on to their descendents.

If anyone would like a copy of our forms you can email me and i'll send them to you.

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The Transient Building, symbolising the impermanence of language, houses both the Linguistics Department at Sydney University and PARADISEC, a digital archive for endangered Pacific languages and music.

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