The following is a guest post by Rafael Franco, a writer-editor intern in the U.S. Copyright Office’s Outreach and Education Section.
During Native American Heritage Month, we celebrate the richness of Native American culture and its diverse array of creative expression. The U.S. Copyright Office’s records contain thousands of submissions from Native American creators in various artistic forms, including film, television, music, literature, and documents.
This year, the Office shines a light on the accomplishments of Native American television creators—specifically, the creative team behind Reservation Dogs, a critically acclaimed television series registered with the Office in 2021 that aired its third and final season in September 2023. Television series like Reservation Dogs are just one example of the different types of art forms protected under copyright law.
Reservation Dogs features a large array of Native American talent, including Sterlin Harjo, one of the series’ two creators. Moreover, the show features a cast of Native American actors, including Devery Jacobs, D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Lane Factor, Paulina Alexis, and brothers Lil Mike and Funnybone (known collectively as Mike Bone) and many Native American writers, including Bobby Wilson, Tommy Pico, Dallas Goldtooth, and Erica Tremblay. In addition, the series hosts various Native American guest directors such as Sydney Freeland, Tazbah Chavez, and Danis Goulet. It even features a cameo of former U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo during season 2, episode 9.
The show provides viewers with a modern depiction of Native American youth in America. It follows the lives of four Native American teenagers living in the Muscogee Nation in rural Oklahoma, a place they dream to leave in hopes of moving to California. While the series often integrates comedy in its approach, its subject matter unravels the realities of being Native, both in terms of enduring racial inequities and preserving and celebrating Native American culture.
The series has been well received, both by the public and by critics. It garnered a Peabody Award for its first season in 2021 and a nomination for its second season in 2022, an elite recognition that honors skillful storytelling. Reservation Dogs also received nominations for prestigious television broadcasting awards such as the Golden Globes and the Critics Choice Awards.
The copyright system incentivizes the production of new creative works, including television series like Reservation Dogs, episodes of which are registered as motion pictures. Copyright in a motion picture protects only the expression fixed in the media (including camera work, dialogue, and sounds)—not the idea or concept behind the work. To read more about what copyright protects in motion pictures, see Copyright Registration for Motion Pictures, Including Video Recordings (Circular 45).
The Copyright Office aims to broaden public awareness of what the copyright system encompasses and how to participate. A cornerstone of our current strategic plan is Copyright for All, and the Office dedicates itself to making the copyright system as understandable and accessible to as many members of the public as possible.
Read more about Native American creators and their works on our blog.