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A U.N. Effort to Make Cultural Appropriation Illegal?

An intergovernmental committee meets in Geneva this week to talk about "protecting" traditional cultural expressions.

Brick 101/flickrBrick 101/flickrDiplomats from around the world are meeting in Geneva this week to discuss how intellectual property laws can stop the "misappropriation and misuse" and "offensive and derogatory use" of "traditional cultural expression." Or as the CBC put it: They're asking whether "cultural appropriation" should be "illegal worldwide."

Thankfully, that's just a worst-case scenario. Bureaucratic rot makes it unlikely that anything will get that far.

The meeting is being held by the Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore (IGC), a group established in 2000 by the World Intellectual Property Organization, a United Nations agency. The committee's aim is to create legal protections for "traditional cultural expressions," which can include "music, dance, art, designs, names, signs and symbols, performances, ceremonies, architectural forms, handicrafts and narratives, or many other artistic or cultural expressions." In the 17 years since the IGC was established, it has yet to establish any actual substantial regulations.

What sort of appropriation does the committee want to stop? University of Colorado Law Dean James Anaya, an indigenous leader and a technical analyst for the IGC, points to products that purport to be made or endorsed by indigenous groups but aren't. At the Geneva meeting, Anaya offered Urban Outfitters' "Navajo line" as an example. The Navajo Nation actually brought suit in U.S. court against Urban Outfitters over that line of products in 2012, and the case was settled out of court last year. It's unclear how an international intellectual property bureaucracy would improve the situation.

But it's clear how it could create new avenues for rent-seeking. The World Intellectual Property Organization generates revenue from fees, such as the ones it charges for international trademarks. Any system the IGC creates is likely to include a similar international mechanism for registering whichever "traditional cultural expressions" get protections. Such a setup could have a chilling effect on any commercialization of folklore, even by members of the original indigenous communities.

After all, the same forces of globalization and decentralization that have made intellectual property laws more difficult to enforce offer the potential to drastically expand native producers' reach. KPMG has noted, for example, that the internet offers a "new potential for indigenous Australians in regional and remote areas to access global audiences." An IGC-style intellectual property regime would inevitably require such entrepreneurs, not just the big corporations accused of cultural appropriation, to get additional approvals for their activity.

Meanwhile, the same governments with long histories of abusing indigenous populations would be responsible for deciding who belongs to such populations and who faces criminal penalties for not meeting the governments' definitions. Kathy Bowrey, a law professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia, tells Reason that she would love to see the IGC succeed in setting up an system that genuinely protects indigenous culture. But she has no hopes that it will. Given the "racist practices that mark everyday lives of First Nations people domestically," she says, "I'm not sure why there is an expectation that these states would operate differently on the international stage."

One area being negotiated this week might be an exception to the above complaints. The IGC is also looking at "traditional medicines," which outside companies have a history of incorporating into drugs they then patent for themselves. In this case, the committee aims to "avoid the granting of erroneous patents," a goal that would limit rather than expand the excesses of intellectual property laws.

Of course, the IGC might not succeed in adopting any rules at all. Its members hope to organize a major diplomatic conference on the issue in the next two years, but first the World Intellectual Property Organization has to decide in October whether even to extend the committee's mandate. The IGC's mandate last expired in 2014, at which point it stopped its work for a year.

Photo Credit: Brick 101/flickr

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  • some guy||

    Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources

    Alright. I have a new #1 on my list of committees that shouldn't exist.

  • Juice||

    Genetic Resources

    Nah, that's not creepy sounding.

  • Chipper Morning, Now #1||

    I would like to leave some of my genetic resources in that report.

  • Fuck you, Shikha (Nunya)||

    Too late. I put my genetic resources everywhere. Everywhere.

  • Hugh Akston||

    I'm sorry Ed, but I cannot risk reading an article that includes the UN, intellectual property, and cultural appropriation because there's a good chance that my eyes will roll out of my head.

  • Chipper Morning, Now #1||

    Do not roll your eyes at Reason, Hugh. Rolling your eyes is the clearest sign of inevitable divorce accordong to marriage counselors.

  • cgr2727||

    If you roll your eyes at this article, I will accuse you of appropriating the culture and intellectual property of exasperated husbands everywhere.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    The committee's aim is to create legal protections for "traditional cultural expressions," busy work to keep bureaucrats employed

    FTFY

    first the World Intellectual Property Organization has to decide in October whether even to extend the committee's mandate.

    "Quick! Everybody look busy so that we can justify our continued wasting of money." - IGC

  • buybuydandavis||

    busy work to keep bureaucrats employed arbitrary power for unaccountable international apparatchiks
  • DaveH||

    My wife and I attended a performance last week in which Americans (whatever that means) listened to German music performed by a group with an overrepresentation of Asian genes. This was before the interval. Subsequent to the interval, the music was French. Talk about cultural appropriation!

    Question: should we have been so politically correct as to wear sheets over our heads for anonymity?

  • Juice||

    Yes, wearing white sheets would have been more politically correct.

  • Chipper Morning, Now #1||

    It depends on how many holes you cut out.

  • Derp-o-Matic 6000||

    ...

    Because Germans are afraid of ghosts, right?

  • Half-Virtue, Half-Vice||

    Yes, because ghosts are the manifestation of past sins come back to haunt the sinner.

  • ||

    "music, dance, art, designs, names, signs and symbols, performances, ceremonies, architectural forms, handicrafts and narratives, or many other artistic or cultural expressions."

    If you like your logic, math, science, engineering, and technology, you can keep your logic, math, science, engineering and technology.

  • ||

    It's actually exceedingly insulting. The biggest contribution to the modern (or any) world made by indigenous people(s) is clay pots, wearing loincloths, and rain dances?

  • DaveH||

    Bang on! Well said.

  • Chipper Morning, Now #1||

    I vote for corn.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    +1 teosinte

  • paranoid android||

    One area being negotiated this week might be an exception to the above complaints. The IGC is also looking at "traditional medicines," which outside companies have a history of incorporating into drugs they then patent for themselves. In this case, the committee aims to "avoid the granting of erroneous patents," a goal that would limit rather than expand the excesses of intellectual property laws.

    I look forward over the coming legal fight over whether other nations can use that "traditional medicine" of Scotland, penicillin.

  • Libertarian||

    Traditional medicine. You mean they're going to outlaw plants?

  • BearOdinson||

    I am going to give Stan Lee and Marvel a piece of my mind over that Thor characterization!

    (Actually, the funny thing is Marvel makes Thor look BETTER than in my religion!)

  • BearOdinson||

    And I am gods damned sick and tired of everyone in this damn country stealing my haggis, playing bagpipes and wearing kilts!!

  • Libertarian||

    "Everyone"? You mean BOTH of them?

  • pan fried wylie||

    Almost 3, I've been shopping for bagpipes.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Traditional targets are cheaper and easier to find, and not a hazardous material when discarded.

  • Chipper Morning, Now #1||

    You work for the CIA and are going to try a new enhanced interrogation technique?

  • Robbzilla||

    I was at the Ren Faire a few weeks ago... It was more than a couple.

  • Unlabelable MJGreen||

    I told you, it's a skirt!

    I'll cop to the haggis.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    On the plus side, if this succeeds we'll never again have to see another white person with dreadlocks.

  • Robbzilla||

    And the tourism industry in Jamaica will wither on the vine.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Especially once it turns out that the cultivation and consumption of marijuana originated in Asia and was appropriated by Caribbeans.

  • Zeb||

    Jah made the herb for man, buddy.

    I'm also given to understand that goats love to play with it.

  • Chipper Morning, Now #1||

    Do they ever.

  • Chipper Morning, Now #1||

    But then all the hipsters will start wearing medieval wigs. Is that any better?

  • Jerryskids||

    Its members hope to organize a major diplomatic conference on the issue in the next two years

    I'll bet they do, I'll bet they do. They just have to decide where to hold the conference - Bali? Lucerne? Monaco? Bangkok? I know! What about a series of conferences over the next decade or so?

  • Cynical Asshole||

    What about a series of conferences over the next decade or so?

    Worked for the IPCC. And by "worked" I mean "wasted untold gobs of money on useless horseshit."

  • Libertarian||

    You know, a literal handful of actions by Trump would ensure his immortality:

    1. Repeal Obamacare
    2. Withdraw from NATO
    3. Stop meddling in Syria, etc.
    4. Cease acting as the world's largest arms dealer
    5. Withdraw from the UN.

    Unfortunately, I don't see him doing any of the above.

  • cgr2727||

    Well said, but anything that simple and obvious is likely to escape the grasp of the Great Orange One and his bungling handlers.

    I've always dithered about withdrawing from the UN though. That permanent seat on the security council and the veto that goes with it can be awfully useful (just ask the Red Chinese and the Russkies). On the other hand, let them pass resolutions until they're blue in the face, and we'll go ahead and do what we want anyway. Kind of like FYTW. If Dear Leader Kim can take that approach, we sure as hell can.

  • buybuydandavis||

    The Great Wall of Trump

  • Rebel Scum||

    They're asking whether "cultural appropriation" should be "illegal worldwide."

    Good luck getting that bs treaty ratified. Also, the UN can fuck off.

  • pan fried wylie||

    * A U.N. Effort to make the public domain illegal.

  • Zeb||

    Yeah, pretty much. I would think that traditional things would be by definition not things one can claim IP rights over.

    Of course, none of this has to do with individual rights. The IP rights to traditional cultural things would almost certainly end up in the hands of some committee of dogooders and not in the hands of people living traditional lifestyles. And collective IP ownership is bound to work out about as well as "collective ownership" of the means of production for the average person.

  • Rhywun||

    none of this has to do with individual rights

    I'll go one step further and say this is all about feelz and sticking it to the white man. Nobody is going to benefit from any IP because that is not the intent of the thing.

  • buybuydandavis||

    Wrong.

    The intent of the thing is for unaccountable international apparatchiks to benefit from the IP. And they will.

  • Jerryskids||

    And once again those of us who share a long cultural history of appropriating culture get boned. Look, my people didn't rape and rob and loot and pillage their way across Europe for centuries just to give all that up just because some people are too PC to acknowledge our rich heritage.

  • Dan S.||

    Stopping false claims that a product is "made or endorsed by indigenous groups" is a legitimate governmental activity, but as noted it requires no new treaties or similar agreements. But in general, "traditional cultural expressions" have, by definition, been around for much longer than the "limited times" that intellectual property can be protected for, so should get no such IP protection. It's pretty simple, but count on bureaucrats to complicate it.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Government activity? Why not leave prosecution to the actual victims?

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Because Unquestioned Assumptions ain't just a river in Egypt.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Excuse me. The full name of that particular river is Unquestioned Assumptions That Perpetuate The State.

  • Zeb||

    The government still ends up enforcing the judgements. We're talking about the actual world that exists here. I doubt the UN or existing governments are going to all of a sudden decide that an-cap-topia is the way to go.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    WELL, THEY SHOULD.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Real world? You think any of this is connected to The Real World?

  • ||

    But in general, "traditional cultural expressions" have, by definition, been around for much longer than the "limited times" that intellectual property can be protected for, so should get no such IP protection.

    Similarly, or possibly by the same token, "It just cures shit." isn't sufficient to patent a chemical compound and/or "It also dispels wind demons." isn't sufficient to refute other ownership. Either traditional medicine men are going to have to bone up on their Western medicine or stick with their patent that claims the native stinkweed wards off bad blood and bringing spiritual enlightenment while Merck uses it for its blood thinning and dopamine balancing properties.

  • Zeb||

    If a company develops a drug based on something in a plant used for traditional medicine, they probably still deserve IP protections (assuming you think IP is a legitimate thing) of some sort. But that shouldn't restrict use of the original plant. But I don't think that's how it works anyway.

  • Robbzilla||

    OK... America as a whole should all get together and agree to stop purchasing any and all jewelry, art, foods, or anything else associated with anything other than a European culture. And we should also stop exporting our culture to those countries who have representatives complaining about this. Let's see how they like being cut off for a few weeks. I figure we could last a lot longer than they could.

    Then, after they've been brought to heel, we can kindly suggest that they shun the individuals who are calling for this nonsense.

  • Dillinger||

    >>>The Navajo Nation actually brought suit in U.S. court against Urban Outfitters over that line of products in 2012, and the case was settled out of court last year.

    for $24 in baubles?

    Also, stop adverb abuse, Ed. They *actually* brought suit, or they just plain brought suit?

  • Zeb||

    Wampum.

    People find the weirdest things to complain about. People using natural languages aren't just logic processors. While the "actually" may be redundant in a strict sense, its use as an intensifier does change the tone and subtle meaning of the sentence.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Look at Mr. Cunning Linguist over here.

  • Chipper Morning, Now #1||

    Citizen X, always pursuing those cunning stunts.

  • pan fried wylie||

    play the game or hush up.

    *indubitably brought

  • Dillinger||

    love it. wouldn't have piped up if that was the word.

  • Dillinger||

    >>> its use as an intensifier does change the tone and subtle meaning of the sentence.

    Granted. It also makes Ed read like a 7th grade chick. Actually is the new totes OMG but I'll only bitch about it this one time.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    Grammar Nazis should stop appropriating German culture.

  • buybuydandavis||

    For the win!

  • Free Society||

    Wow, the UN must be hellbent on killing 99% of the third world. Oh what's that, this rule wouldn't be applied consistently? Oh okay then.

  • Shirley Knott||

    So it's cultural appropriation for us to use algebra?
    And it was cultural appropriation that preserved the works of Aristotle so the descendants of his culture (and many others) could revere his work?
    Chinese Christians cannot be oppressed, they're cultural appropriators?
    Same with California Buddhists?
    Proselytizing is 'solicitation for acts of cultural appropriation', which surely is heinous and calls for a raft of uber-statspolizei stings and prosecutions.

    The list is endless, and endlessly entertaining. An eternity of meddling opportunities by people who're just sure that things would be better if we got out of their way and did things their way, if at all.
    Which is, after all, the point.

  • Half-Virtue, Half-Vice||

    This'll bring back the wacky prohibition characters from 1920's American culture -- except instead of hoouch they will be slinging black market tacos and day old sushi -- really nothing changes for us.

  • Sevo||

    Yet one more reason to get out of the UN.

  • ||

    I'm starting to sniff a scam here.

  • ||

    Some guy called Anaya out of the University of Colorado with a law degree from Harvard is pushing this shit.

    Which begs the question, did he culturally appropriate his degree?

    While we're at it, hand over anything you use that the white European man invented and you use over you jerk off.

    I was willing to humour this bull shit but you crossed the line going the illegality route.

    Now it's a fight pal.

    /sharpens tomahawk and doesn't give a shit.

  • Vernon Depner||

    Will Black Santas be illegal?

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Diplomats from around the world are meeting in Geneva this week to discuss how intellectual property laws can stop the "misappropriation and misuse" and "offensive and derogatory use" of "traditional cultural expression."

    So much for global warming.

  • zombietimeshare||

    So I can't make spaghetti, tacos, or spring rolls unless I fill out the proper UN form, send in a fee, and wait for their approval—in 24 to 36 months?

  • SKR||

    you forgot to make it in triplicate.

    NO TACOS FOR YOU!!!

  • SKR||

    Considering that the Denisovan stone bracelet is tens of thousands of years more advanced than similarly aged human jewelry artifacts and the oldest known piece of jewelry is of Neanderthal origin, it's pretty reasonable to conclude that nearly the entire cultural history of our species is one of cultural appropriation.

  • buybuydandavis||

    Culture is appropriation

    To paraphrase the Philosopher King "you didn't invent that".

  • Number 2||

    "Given the 'racist practices that mark everyday lives of First Nations people domestically,' she says"

    Sweet Jesus no...

  • Liberty =>|<= Equality||

    So I guess this means English (or maybe Scottish) people should get paid licensing fees every time someone anywhere in the world uses magnets in motion to generate electricity.

  • Empress Trudy||

    I can't even untangle that stupid

  • Empress Trudy||

    I can't even untangle that stupid

  • karenza t. wall||

    this is the most absurd thing i have ever heard.

    now this is going to be law?

    this is what people do, and have done since we first inhabited this earth.

    animals do this. they copy human actions.

    is this cultural appropriation?

    is there not enough of things like poverty, environmental degradation, racism, etc. etc. etc?

    now we have to watch what we say? and do?

    this absurdity is a western phenomenon - i am so incensed.

  • karenza t. wall||

    this is the most absurd thing i have ever heard.

    now this is going to be law?

    this is what people do, and have done since we first inhabited this earth.

    animals do this. they copy human actions.

    is this cultural appropriation?

    is there not enough of things like poverty, environmental degradation, racism, etc. etc. etc?

    now we have to watch what we say? and do?

    this absurdity is a western phenomenon - i am so incensed.

  • karenza t. wall||

    this is the most absurd thing i have ever heard.
    now this is going to be law?
    this is what people do, and have done since we first inhabited this earth.
    animals do this. they copy human actions.
    is this cultural appropriation?
    is there not enough of things like poverty, environmental degradation, racism, etc. etc. etc?
    now we have to watch what we say? and do?
    this absurdity is a western phenomenon - i am so incensed.
    and this from a publication calling itself 'reason'

  • karenza t. wall||

    sorry for the previous mistakenly reposted more than once post.
    i cannot find how to delete a post:(

  • cc2||

    At the research institute where I worked, I heard a guy talking behind me. Perfect British accent, absent minded professor manner, shorts and sandals with socks, riding his bicycle down the hall...but he was Chinese, from Hong Kong.
    Another conversation: two postdocs A and B. A is telling about his experiment he is starting, B says "but you'll be up all night" and A says "no problem, I'm German"....A is black.
    There are an increasing number of inter-racial/inter-cultural marriages in the US (I read 1/6 new marriages but can't prove it). What are they supposed to do? And who gets to give out the approval certificates?
    In disputes in the US about native american art like pottery, claims by an artist that he is Navaho or something end up getting resolved by the courts--do you want courts telling you that you really aren't an indian?

  • Richard Stallman||

    I agree with the article's position, but it is a mistake to use the
    term "intellectual property". That term spreads confusion by
    generalizing about laws that are totally different--in their purpose,
    in their text, in the way they function, and in their effects.

    If you want to understand any of these laws -- copyright law, for
    example -- you need first to root out the supposition that it works
    anything like patent law or trademark law or publicity rights. The
    only way to think clearly about any one of these laws is to
    distinguish it firmly from the rest of them: in other words, to reject
    the erroneous practice of generalizing about all of them with a single
    term (such as "intellectual property").

    See https://gnu.org/philosophy/not-ipr.html.

  • dwitheridge||

    Isn't "cultural appropriation" how societies throughout Europe and Asia advanced? Thanks to Marco Polo's "cultural appropriation", Europe got pasta and gunpowder. Rome's "appropriation" of Greek culture spread their language and philosophy throughout the empire. Algebra (al-Jibra) came from the Middle East. We all benefit from celebrating and emulating the accomplishments of other cultures around the world.

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