In recent times a number of Maori groups have argued that aspects of their culture cannot be used without proper permission. For example Maori groups objected when an Israeli tobacco company used “Maori Mix” in its cigarette branding.
To give another example, the Danish company Lego, famous the world over for children”s toys, created a computer game which involved the use of Maori words and certain aspects of Polynesian culture. In the game characters fight to liberate a Pacific Island and the complaint was that Maori intellectual property was being infringed. In particular, Maori voiced concern that their culture was not being represented accurately. A meeting was held with Lego and in the end the company made changes to its practices.
While Lego accommodated the concerns of Maori the reality is that in New Zealand there is currently no legal category known as “Maori intellectual property”.
Strictly speaking it is lawful to use aspects of Maori culture, or any other culture for that matter, so long as it is done in a way which does not offend existing legal rights or breach normal advertising standards. For example it might not be lawful to copy Maori artwork which, like any other artwork, may be the subject of copyright. There may also be certain Maori words or phrases that function as trade marks and to use those might be unlawful, not because they derive from Maori culture, but because they operate as brand names just like any other brand name.
The NZ Trade Marks Act has a section preventing the registration of trade marks that would be offensive to Maori. That does not mean that such trade marks could not be used in the marketplace, it just means that they cannot enjoy the same level of protection afforded to registered trade marks.
While it may be lawful to use aspects of Maori culture for branding it is prudent to have regard for the sensitivities of Maori before doing so. This may mean only using aspects of Maori culture in a respectful way and so as to avoid unnecessary offense and bad press. A brand which offends the sensibilities of a significant section of the New Zealand public is unlikely to be as successful and enduring as it would otherwise be.