OWNING IT: Ethics of Ownership, Rights, & Consent in Community-Collaborative Cultural Work

20 min readApr 16, 2021
Tapedeck atop a heritage butcher counter inside Reece’s Market — Caledonia, Ohio. Photo Credit: Jess Lamar Reece Holler, for Caledonia Northern Folk Studios. All rights reserved. © Jess Lamar Reece Holler 2021

A Guide to Negotiations & Expectations for Folklife, Oral History, Documentary Arts & Community-Based Cultural Work for Freelance Practitioners

ABSTRACT: Intellectual property is a key concern for independent, freelance, & movement-based cultural workers — including public folklorists, oral historians, documentary artists, & other allied cultural workers — who have to navigate complex relationships between the narrators with whom we co-produce documentary materials (oral history interviews; portrait photography; films, &c.) and the organizations and institutions who often hire us to do this work, when we’re not running our own movement-based projects. At the same time, we’re often the ones in direct conversation with — & responsible to — the communities (hopefully also paid for their labor) that we are being paid to document. As such, intellectual property is a critical grounds in which to establish more equitable standards for work with independent practitioners and narrators alike.

The work of Black, Brown, Indigenous, Asian/Asian-American, femme-presenting, queer/trans*, disabled, & working-class practitioners are more structurally liable to be used without consent or metabolized by an organization — i.e., in a word, stolen — for future projects or to fuel someone else’s labor without social consequence due to existing inequities, tendencies, & patterns of socialization in U.S. society. As such, centering ownership, rights, & crediting as a part of each of our freelance practices — both for ourselves, and for the communities & individuals we’re documenting — is critical for building solidarities and standing together towards a more sustainable, accessible, & diverse field: one that’s less extractive, less colonizing, & which refuses the maintenance work of white supremacy.


Intellectual property, in cultural work practice, could potentially include any of the following — depending on what you (as the practitioner) or your community collaborators, narrators, &/or documented artists & communities want to claim & own:

  • Your own core contracting materials (consent forms & language, SOW scripts)
  • Project support materials (consent forms, pre-interview forms, baseline interview questions)
  • Project design & praxis (ethics, core principles, workflows)
  • Grant language creating or funding your particular cultural work project (if you’re written it)
  • Your documentation, fieldwork media, and/or oral history interviews themselves (which should be — and legally, according to John Neuenschwander, already *are* — shared between interviewer & narrator or documentarian & documented artist, culture-keeper, tradition-bearer, or community group)
  • Any photography, film or supporting documentary media work you’ve produced from the interview event
  • Post-production workflows & documents supporting next steps your cultural work project
  • Work products like fieldwork reports & recommendations
  • Derivative works (exhibit copy, media projects, documentary) arising from your community-based cultural or documentary work

The default arrangement for most independent/freelance cultural work contracts at cultural organizations around the United States is that such contracts are work-for-hire: i.e., all intellectual property, unless otherwise specified, reverts back to the hiring organization. Work-for-hire contracts extract from both the cultural worker and the community you’ve documented. You have the choice to insist on, & design, a less extractive, more reparative alternative: one which allows hiring cultural institutions to use the cultural work you generate & co-generate; but which keeps rights & ownerships in the hands of the cultural worker & documented community. In the archival world, this model is known as post-custodial stewardship. Here, we’re simply calling it doing what’s right.


Depending on your project work, what you bring with you into a project, and other factors, you may feel more or less compelled to strongly stake your claim to intellectual property in the project. Regardless, you always have the choice to negotiate for any of the above that you generate; and you should always work with (or against) a hiring organization to make sure that your narrators and documented individuals & communities have a choice in the matter. Ethical community-based cultural work chips at the “documentarian savior” structure; & should mean that documented communities are there at the table, from the get-go. As a cultural worker, you have the power &, indeed, the responsibility to mediate between documented communities & the organization you’re working for; & to call out & challenge extractive organizational practices.

Practitioners who generate projects (i.e. writing grants for or with organizations) or bring along substantial already-formed toolkits, ethics, project design commitments, &/or forms (consent, etc.) as a part of why they were hired should be especially on the lookout to establish their ownership of these materials from the get-go (often thru an MOU; or written into the contract) to prevent unauthorized re-use or uptake of these materials by the hiring institutions for other projects for which the oral historian would not be hired. This sort of theft continues the labor organizations can extract from freelance practitioners, without offering more contracts or work; it is not OK without your explicit knowledge & consent.

Regardless of your personal feelings about ownership, you should know that ownership, rights, & crediting in cultural work, oral history, public folklife, & documentary arts practice are a matter of equity budgeting. Ideas, project toolkits, & contributions are forms of fossilized labor; when organizations seek to alienate you and communities you’re documenting from the potential future rights to mobilize that work product, it’s a form of theft & extraction. To change this, we need to shift the field. That starts with our own expectations & negotiations.

But what if that feels scary? It probably will. Even ostensibly liberal & progressive organizations — & their lawyers — may try to tell you it can’t be done. But ask them why work-for-hire or gift-of-deeds is their policy for cultural work. Do those stated reasons line up with their racial justice solidarity statements, or commitments to accessibility? Doubtful.

Moreover: every time one of us fights for intellectual property, it gets easier for the rest of us — and for the communities we work with. On the flip side, by not negotiating for our intellectual property, freelance practitioners make it harder for those of us who do; & for cultural workers & community members whose positionalities are already structurally undermined, doubt, or coded via racism, sexism, & their confluence as “aggressive” at the negotiating table.

Establishing a culture of delimiting ownership of freelancer’s work — and demanding & enforcing crediting — works to make the field accessible, since it is BIPOC, femme-presenting, working-class & other historicaly-marginalized practitioners whose intellectual property & contributions are the most often & easily (given power structures in dominant U.S. society) stolen & unrecognized. Hiring organizations must do better; but it is also independent practitioners’ responsibilities to understand the larger politics of the field that each of our individual contracts & negotiations are embroiled in; and to act in solidarity to usher in a more just field of oral history practice.


Depending on the contract // consent form and their degree of autonomy in drafting it, cultural workers (including public folklorists, oral historians, & documentary artists) will likely encounter any combination of the following scenarios:

  • Arrangements (“consent & release”) that seize intellectual property // ownership // use // reproduction rights from documentarian cultural workers and communities/individuals being interviewed/documented and transfer them to the funding // sponsoring institution. This is often a common practice for large, institutional archives.
  • Contracts & consent forms which commit a cultural work project &/ or any accompanying documentary materials to the commons and restrict any kind of commercial re-use; or which permit all sorts of derivative works and uses. This often happens under Creative Commons useage; & although CC avoids the issues with work-for-hire lockdown, it can be an equally unethical & extractive approach to cultural work rights & ethics.
  • Contracts & consent forms which are silent on the above issues

Rarer yet is the model that is actually common & advocated for by many independent artists: contracts & consent forms which leave the intellectual property // ownership in the hands of the cultural worker; while granting the funding // sponsoring // hiring institution (de)limited rights of use or reproduction.


We strongly advocate a model that goes further than this: one that keeps intellectual property for oral history (audio) interviews shared between the oral historian and the narrator who is co-composing this work, with institutions agreeing to a set of delimited use/reproduction rights mutually agreed-upon by oral historian and narrator. Furthermore, we recommend a process of iterative consent — which means that agreements might look different from narrator to narrator, and that both narrator & oral historian // cultural worker can change their minds over time.

This model is informed by both a post-custodial stewardship model from community archives theory // practice, and by recent movements for equity budgeting in oral history work, which insist on the mutual recognition and compensation of oral historians/documenting cultural workers and narrators. Intellectual property is a matter of equity budgeting, because intellectual property is fossilized labor. No third party, organization, or institution, should be making a profit off the labor of independent oral historians & narrators unless that is explicitly the wish of those individuals.


Caledonia Northern Folk Studios also condemns a relatively new tendency in our field — amongst hiring organizations — to push for the commoning of cultural workers’ documentary media products, ideas, intellectual property, project design, praxes, or “tangible” oral history projects/materials out of a stated commitment to “fair sharing” of data and information.

Sounds like a good idea on the surface, right? But non-profits have gotten wise. Capitalism is ever-evolving. Commoning agreements are now being used to further strip organized cultural workers *and* documented communities of rights to their co-produced materials that *we* should rightfully hold. Watch out for these arrangements; & understand the implications — & your rights to negotiate otherwise — when you see them in the wild.

To be clear, commoning of property is ideal. But under late capitalism & the non-profit industrial complex, commoning of contract workers’ & community members’ materials dispossesses us, while enriching hiring organizations on the backs of our labor. While we wholeheartedly welcome the end of capitalism, under contemporary arrangements, such models absolutely make freelance practitioners vulnerable by denying them the opportunity for future use of their project works, and assigning that cachet, instead, most often, to the organization. Commons models can often be used, for example, to employ a “revolving door” model of hiring subsequent practitioners on short-term contracts to use // build on past contractors’ work — keeping contractors’ intellectual property in the hands of a hiring organization while meeting neoliberal corporate needs to refuse long-term employment or benefits.

Moreover, “forced commons” agreements violate the spirit & complex ethical reality of oral history interviews’ dialogic construction; and often make the life stories, experiences, narrative style, & literal voice of marginalized narrators open to public poaching. This poaching almost always benefits historically white-led, white-serving institutions seeking to shore up shallow virtue-signaling commitments to “social justice” without doing the deep work of engaging communities or divesting from white supremacy.

Caledonia Northern Folk Studios condemns these bad-faith co-optations of movement-based copyleft practices; and urges Creative Commons or other Copyleft agreements only when it is absolutely the wish of *both* the independent cultural worker and documented individuals & communities; or as a very last-dash alternative to a hiring organization insisting on owning all project rights — which, in and of itself, is already a deeply unethical move.


Furthermore, we also strongly urge ethical projects to include a clause giving the contracting cultural worker first rights of refusal to future project work on the same project — which might entail producing interpretive public history documents, media piecing, or transcription/indexing work — wherever the skills & capacities of the contracted oral historian allow. This prevents unnecessary alienation of labor & the accrual of one precarious oral historians’ labor & intellectual property in project design to a new party; and is a smart move (from an efficiency & familiarity standpoint) for institutions anyway. Sample contract language for this clause might look like this:

Future Project Work // First Rights of Refusals

By engaging in this contract, [Cultural Worker] requests first rights of refusal for any potential future project work — including the production of derivative works — in public history interpretation or programming of this building/site. [Relevant skills beyond but related to your specific cultural work], are a cornerstone of [Practitioner or studio name]’s services toolkit, and we would be honored to continue this work for the project on a separate contract in a future grant or funding cycle.


University & salaried institution workflows & standards often inadvertently disadvantage or steal the intellectual property of project-based contract oral historians & allied cultural workers, who are not on contract or otherwise supported to participate in subsequent project phases: which might include writing & publication of research, exhibit design, documentary development, etc. We strongly urge hiring organizations to be cognizant of the inequities written into a project-base cycle when some practitioners are contractors and others are salaried, and to either fundraise enough to extend project work cycles to allow contracted participants to participate in all stages of project work (including writing // publication // final media production), or, failing that, to budget for such work within a project cycle. Contracted oral historians & allied cultural workers have the rights to see the fruits of their labor thru to completion, and are usually the best positioned workers to produce next-step or final-stage derivative works. Conversely, cutting contract oral historians & cultural workers out of these stages of the process perpetuates inequity & theft of labor // intellectual property, even when such practitioners are “invited” to collaborate on future derivative works, because they are not materially supported to collaborate in the same was as tenured or salaried project team members on staff at the hiring organization.

Moreover, oral historians & cultural workers should always retain the right to use & showcase contracted project work in the personal portfolio, websites, &c. Such permissions should be written into contracts for work.


Furthermore, we strongly urge any hiring organization to consider the methods, project design, & praxis (consent forms, project workflows, contracts & proposals, methods & ethics) introduced by contracted cultural work professionals to be intellectual property, demanding citation, negotiation, and respect in the same way as more “tangible” products of the oral history process (interviews, photographs). All such contributions by contracted cultural workers must be credited & cited appropriately & treated as such. The contracted cultural worker must be consulted and give explicit permission before any project design, infrastructure, or praxis documents or language can be used by the hiring institution on subsequent projects, or in future grant applications, and the cultural worker generating those materials & methods should be generously & clearly credited // cited pending any consented-to permitted usage of such materials.


All contracted cultural work professions must be credited or cited at all points pending and in perpetuity following a contract project’s completion for any work they have contributed to, collaborated on, or solely authored: including but not limited to oral history interviews, interview outlines, transcription, project design that hiring institutions have permission to write about/use/work with (see above), and other forms of “background” labor that are routinely not cited in ways that perpetuate inequity in our field.

Independent cultural work practitioners are strongly urged to include clauses in project contracts setting expectations for crediting/citation, and informing the hiring organization of a preferred citation for project work. Hiring organizations wishing to adhere to leading-edge recommendations for ethical engagement of freelance cultural workers should understand & consent to these agreements.

Specifically, ethical contracts with independent // freelance cultural workers & documentarians will include at least the following baseline ethical crediting & citation provisions beyond the immediate duration of a contract cultural workers’ employment:

  • Citation // crediting of the cultural worker alongside any written, aural, or audiovisual display of documentary, media, or fieldwork products they have co-produced (including interviews, arts documentation, &c.)
  • Citation or crediting of & recognition of labor of the cultural worker in any exhibit text, documentary works, or subsequent derivative works produced depending upon the tangible or intangible contributions of the contracted cultural worker
  • Photo credit lines for any photography produced by project cultural worker *regardless of venue** — and yes, that includes social media, a notorious arena for hiring organization under-crediting or non-crediting of cultural worker labor & property. The character counts of Twitter are no excuse to not appropriately cite artistic work. If a hiring organization is unable to fit an acknowledgement into a photo caption or interview clip on social media, simply embed the citation // acknowledgement into the media file as a visual, or provide an addendum verbal acknowledgement at the beginning, end, or both of an a/v segment.

Given the short-term nature of most project cycles engaging the labor of freelance // independent // contract cultural workers, hiring organizations must take especial pains to continue ethically & fully citing // crediting the labor & contributions of the oral historian/cultural worker long after the tenure of the project, as contracted cultural workers, by the nature of their positions, are no longer being funded to check up on the ethics of a project after its conclusion. It is simply bad form & a waste of independent practitioners’ labor for your organization to first not cite, and then wait for an oral historian to contact you requesting attribution. We condemn all such practices as not only lazy, but unethical — as a hiring institution, in such cases, accrues cachet from the unattributed work of a more precarious professional who actually contributed the labor.

Moreover, the work of BIPOC, femme-presenting, working class, & other marginalized practitioners is usually the most susceptible to nonattribution & theft. We condemn these routinized habits in hiring organizations. They directly contribute to the inequity & whiteness of our field. Hiring organizations must do better.


First of all: remember that when you negotiate for your own rights on a project, you have the simultaneous opportunity — & ethical obligation — to negotiate for the rights of narrators & community members you’ll be documenting. Contracts & Scope of Works may govern both, or you may be working for an institution where things aren’t quite as clearly spelled-out. Either way, the negotiation stages presents a critical opportunity for you to argue for a dual-systems approach to oral history practice, budgeting, & ownership that insists stridently on fair pay, right ownership, & due crediting of both practitioners and narrators (as well as any collaborating community members.)

Caledonia Northern Folk Studios strongly urges, in order for community-collaborative cultural work projects to be as ethical as possible (especially across wide power differentials that) permissions & consent for narrators and/or documented artists, culture-keepers, & tradition-bearers be thought together with considerations of intellectual property for oral historians. Consent, after all, is not the same as ownership; so we recommend that all independent oral historians and contracting organizations committing to social justice in cultural work practice produce transparent documents in collaboration with all involved parties (oral historian, narrator[s], and community group/organization, where relevant) that think together both consent and ownership.

While these negotiations — & their potential outcome — will certainly look differently depending on the type of contract/position an independent practitioner holds (working for a business/corporation, a university/library/archive, a community-based organization, or a social movement/network), we advise the following baseline considerations across work contexts:

  • Permissions for use should grow out of specific, located, situational dialogic conversations between the *particular* cultural workers & documented individuals/communities on a project; and should not be universally driven by the contracting institution’s past blanket policies
  • Custodial archives agreements that demand full or partial transfer of rights from an interview or fieldwork documentation from both the interviewed/documented party & the documentarian should be avoided at all costs. These arrangements are extractive, retrograde, & a bad look for museums, libraries, & cultural institutions. Yucky!
  • The process to establish consent & permissions should be iterative — i.e., an oral history narrator, project folklorist or fieldworker, or documented tradition-bearer can revise them *at any time*. Is this more work for a host institution? Sure. Is it more ethical, & does it reflect a commitment to emergent right relationship with a person who has spent their time helping your project get what it needs? Definitely.
  • Both cultural worker // documentarian & the documented community should have rights to produce derivative works from project fieldwork, interviews, & media with mutual consent from both parties

We furthermore suggest these guidelines for how to begin these negotiations — or how, in some cases, to mobilize this Toolkit to write your own documents for a given job or organization — for practitioners working in the following three common scenarios:

For Projects With Larger Institutions // Governed by Institutional Lawyers; or For Cultural Workers Inheriting “Legacy Projects”:

  • Large organizations may have an organizational lawyer on retainer, or may already have established contract and/or consent form language setting — implicitly or explicitly — expectations around intellectual property & consent for cultural work. Be prepared to examine legal language closely; and to identify instances or clauses which potentially frame your forthcoming work as work-for-hire, or which, similarly, strip to-be-documented community members, culture-bearers, tradition-keepers, & oral history narrators of their own co-ownership in documentary works.
  • In these instances, ask your hiring organization to explain the rationale behind this language; and itemize the extractive impact on both you as a cultural worker — on the sustainability of the cultural work field — and on the institution’s long-term relationship with the community to be documented.
  • Be ready with your particular asks & expectations and the rationales behind them. Explain that you can’t, in good faith, be asked to work on a community-based project centering justice if the hiring organization isn’t willing to “walk the talk,” & embed justice principles in the project’s governing organization.
  • Prepare alternative, best-case scenario language. Be ready with your own contract language & consent forms for your assignment; & be ready to present these with conviction to the hiring institution — and, potentially, either directly or through a staff member, to the institution’s lawyer.

For legacy projects or projects with institutions with standing consent & release forms and/or rights agreements (often libraries, archives, & universities; and some history museums & cultural nonprofits) assess if the existing forms match or exceed ethical expectations for both narrator-/culture keeper- side and cultural worker-side ownership & consent as set forth in this document, or according to whatever standards for economic justice in cultural work is guiding your practice. Make sure you look at both consent/release forms for to-be-documented individuals & community groups (which usually only govern rights agreements between narrators/culture-keepers & institutions) and your own (& any subcontractors’) contracts, which often govern your own rights vis-a-vis the project, the narrator(s), & the institution.

If not: suggest amendations of the existing consent & release to meet leading-edge ethics in the field, including provisions for:

  • Post-custodial stewardship models
  • Co-ownership of interview audio materials between narrator(s) & interviewer(s)
  • Ownership of photography or visual materials by photographer // documentarian; and // or, depending on documentarian need & community member interest (usually for photography of artworks; & potentially, for portraits) between documentarian & documented subject
  • Agreed-upon use rights for the hiring organization
  • Iterative consent model committing an institution to check back with narrators/documented culture-keepers and cultural workers for any beyond-the-bounds-of-Scope-of-Work use of project materials
  • Commitment to credit/cite you, the project cultural worker // documentarian, in any public-facing use of the material you generate
  • First rights of refusal for you (if you are qualified & interested) for additional contract work on any next-stage media production, processing, programming, or public-facing interpretation or oral history interviews you generate

If yes … thank goodness! You’re working with an incredible institution!

For new projects or smaller organizations new to oral history without standard institutional consent/release or contract forms, generate your own documents according to ethical provisions outlined here. If needed, explain rationale to organizational lawyers or directors. If you need backup, cite this article as an example of the why of these practices.

For Community-Based Projects Hosted by Small Non-Profits // Organizations:

  • Small & community-based organizations & non-profits, due to both capacity issues and a nimbleness & de facto practice of “emergent strategy” (see: adrienne maree brown) arising from their deep embededness in local community, are often less likely to run dedicated folklife/cultural arts/oral history programs, so many organizations like this will not have legacy documents around consent or ownership.
  • This presents an opportunity. Often, you’ll have the chance both to supply your own contract and draft the consent form — and to educate organization staff on why these are best practices for justice.
  • We’ve also found these small organizations, as the adage goes, to be (perhaps surprisingly!) both more nimble — smaller ships are easier to turn around, &c. — and more open to leading-edge ethical praxes in cultural work-for-social-justice ethics than larger institutions. These organizations will often be more than willing to have you set the tone for ownership, consent, crediting/citation, & more for your project.
  • As such, small organizations can often become important sites for radical & social-justice aligned cultural work practice — especially with regard to ownership, consent, & post-custodial archives models
  • In these cases, be prepared to generate your own consent forms & contracts using the best practices & guidelines outlined in this document.
  • Wherever possible, converse & collaborate with narrators, culture-keepers, tradition-bearers, and/or a project’s “to-be-documented” community to emergently co-design these standards, ethics, & forms, to make sure they work for the majority of people to be interviewed. And — see below — it doesn’t have to be one-size-fits-all, either. Be modular. Customize.
  • If someone disagrees, you can always — easily — edit/revise & negotiate unique forms for particular culture-keepers, tradition-bearers, & oral history narrators. That said, if the overall project ownership & consent terms are as ethical as possible and give multiple degrees of choice (checking boxes allowing or disallowing certain future uses, &c.) then the more likely it is a central forms will work for all parties!
  • When working for a project either with or documenting members of a group or organization, do not make the mistake that the terms or ethics of the group, organization, or non-profit will be satisfactory for all members. Consult with individuals. Groups & movements are not monolithic.

For Movement-Based Projects:

  • Movement-based projects — rooted in principles & praxes of social justice — are, understandably, often the most fertile grounds for designing for ethical cultural work praxis in the realms of ownership, consent, & crediting/citation
  • Collaborate as widely as possible — ideally, through open community meetings, widely advertised — to *collectively* set the terms of a project
  • This is the gold standard for all community-based cultural work projects anyway; but this sort of grassroots, intensively collaborative work is often more possible in projects generated/from by organically existing social movements than in projects generated by organizations, museums, universities or archives that might “assemble” a movement or collection out of individual narrator interviews, when no coherent social “movement” or “network” organically exists between those narrators

These negotiations matter — not just for your own practice & takeaway, but for the sustainability of both freelance culture work, and the necessary future of less-extractive, more collaborative, more consentual cultural work. Good luck, keep fighting, & don’t give up. Make the case for owning what’s yours.

— JESS LAMAR REECE HOLLER || Caledonia Northern Folk Studios || 16 April 2021

Originally produced as a draft piece for & with the Oral History Association’s Independent Practitioners’ Task Force, with special thanks to Sarah Dziedzic, Allison Tracy-Taylor, Kim Heikkila, Maggie Lemere, Michele Little, Liz Strong, Sady Sullivan, & Camerson Vanderscoff for editing, insights, & suggestions.


For more on equity budgeting, reach out to Jess Lamar Reece Holler at marionvoicesoralhistory [at] gmail [dot] com or oldelectricity [at] gmail [dot] com to set up an initial (free) 15-minute consultation or to book a longer talk, workshop, or commission; we’d be thrilled to go from there ❤

For more on the community-based projects & movements from which the equity budgeting movement has grown, visit/support the Marion Voices Folklife + Oral History Program & Caledonia Northern Folk Studios


Jess Lamar Reece Holler is a community-based cultural organizer, embarrassed public folklorist, anti-oral history oral historian, & documentary artist living & working in North-Central Ohio. She is the founding director of the Marion Voices Folklife + Oral History Program at the Marion County Historical Society, and is Principal at Caledonia Northern Folk Studios — a social justice, cultural work + historic preservation capacity-building consultancy serving North-Central Ohio. She is working to preserve the Masonic & Temple Block buildings in Caledonia, Ohio — the historic home of her family’s Reece’s Market grocery store — as the site of a future regional folklife + cultural work non-profit centering equity practices & working against legacies of cultural work as extraction. Reach out to Jess at oldelectricity at gmail dot com, or via the Caledonia Northern Folk Studios.


Reece Holler, Jess Lamar. April 2021. “Owning It: Ethics of Ownership, Rights, & Consent in Community-Collaborative Culture Work: A Guide to Negotiations & Expectations for Folklife, Oral History, Documentary Arts & Community-Based Cultural Work for Freelance Practitioners,” via Caledonia Northern Folk Studios. Caledonia, Ohio: Caledonia Northern Folk Studios.







cultural worker + oral historian who tries to listen. cares alot about justice for working people. columbus x marion county, ohio. caledonianorthern.org.