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A trade mark is a sign or symbol that you can register to represent your business, such as its logo or name. When you do this, you gain exclusive intellectual property rights to use that trade mark. Before colonisation, Māori had their own framework for protecting mātauranga Māori (commonly translated as Māori knowledge) and other taonga (treasure). Now, the New Zealand government’s current IP system has special processes for protecting mātauranga Māori, aiming to acknowledge their ongoing kaitiakitanga (guardianship) over such taonga. You need to ensure you know these. In particular, the rules and processes for using Māori elements in your trade marks. Papatūānuku is one of these, with sacred significance as tapu. This article will explain whether you can use Papatūānuku in your New Zealand trade mark.

Māori Concepts and Values

Mātauranga Māori is a varied body of knowledge covering the breadth of concepts and values that originate from Māori ancestors. Included in this are the concepts of tapu and noa. The table below outlines an explanation of this important code.


Often means ‘sacred’ or ‘forbidden’. All things possess tapu, and this can lead to certain restrictions around how you handle these things. For example, you cannot touch things that are tapu or approach them in some cases. 


The converse of tapu usually means ‘ordinary’ or ‘common’. You can remove the restrictions of tapu from things, and they become noa. 

You cannot associate things that are tapu with things that are noa. New Zealand law takes heed of this by recognising these restrictions in trade mark application. You need to note this concept if you wish to use a Māori element in your trade mark, so you do not violate this important custom.

For example, say that you wish to name your food product after the Māori street names where you have your business premises. Food is noa, so you need to be careful that using these street names does not violate important Māori cultural values. You would need to do the appropriate research to ascertain this.

Who Is Papatūānuku?

Papatūānuku is a significant figure in te ao Māori, as one of the most important atua or tipuna (in English, god or spiritual ancestor). She is the land and the earth mother that all living creatures come from. She also plays a significant role in the Māori narrative about the creation of the world. According to Māori tradition, her separation from Ranginui (the sky father) allowed light into the world, establishing the natural order we know today.

Following this, as one of the most significant deities in te ao Māori, she is tapu and must be treated accordingly.

Using Papatūānuku in Your New Zealand Trade Mark

Unsurprisingly, the above explanation means that you cannot use Papatūānuku in your New Zealand trade mark. If you associate this important deity, which is tapu, with something that is noa, like food, this is highly offensive and disrespectful.

As a part of your trade mark application, the Intellectual Property Office of New Zealand (IPONZ) considers the merits of your trade mark, and whether it includes any objectionable content. For general purposes around objectionable content, they follow these rules:

  • that they should not reject an application just because it is in poor taste; and
  • if a significant section of the community is likely to object to the trade mark because it is likely to undermine “current religious, family, and social values”, then that should prevent registration.

Māori form a significant section of the community. 

During the application process, there is a period where IPONZ will advertise your application. Any member of the community can object to your application for reasons including:

  • they own your trade mark;
  • your trade mark already exists;
  • the trade mark is contrary to New Zealand law;
  • you made your application in bad faith; or
  • your trade mark would likely offend a significant section of the community, including Māori.

Therefore, if you try to use such tapu elements in your trade mark, multiple opportunities would lead to its rejection.

Māori Concepts and IP

IPONZ sends any kind of trade mark application that uses Māori signs to the Māori advisory committee to discern whether it would be offensive to Māori. Whenever you want to use a concept from mātauranga Māori for intellectual property purposes, you should do the appropriate research to ensure you actually have the authority to do so. Such Māori cultural elements would include:

  • a Māori word or design;
  • native plants or birds; and
  • māori dance or music.

Identify any kaitiaki (guardians) of the knowledge you would want to use, and discuss with them the merits of your plan. You should ask for their consent to use any sign from mātauranga Māori and treat it with respect.

Key Takeaways

Papatūānuku is a sacred ancestor in te ao Māori, and is tapu. You cannot associate things that are tapu with things that are noa. Using her depiction in your trade mark would likely come under this concept. Therefore, you should not use Papatūānuku in your trade mark. If you would like more information or help with Māori IP at your business, contact LegalVision’s IP lawyers on 0800 005 570 or fill out the form on this page.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who is Papatūānuku?

Papatūānuku is the earth mother and represents the land. She is a sacred ancestor that plays a key role in the Māori narrative of the creation of the world, along with Ranginui, the sky father.

Can I use Māori cultural elements in my trade mark?

You can only use Māori cultural elements in your trade mark if it is unlikely to offend or disrespect Māori customs. You need to do the proper research and ask for consent from the relevant kaitiaki before using Māori IP.

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