I’m flattered to have been given a guest-worker permit at Savage Minds. I was invited to comment especially on the intersection of anthropology and intellectual/cultural property. But since my work is now moving in new and different directions, I’ll also have a few posts on other issues before management yanks my login rights toward the end of the month.
The more I track anthropological work in intellectual property rights (IPR), the more it seems that as a discipline we’ve leveraged ourselves into a strange and contradictory place. On the one hand, many of us enthusiastically support the idea of open access (see Rex’s recent post, for example, or check out the website of the Alexandria Archive Institute). On the other, anthropologists are collaborating with indigenous organizations to create more robust controls over access to indigenous knowledge in the interest of discouraging various forms of cultural appropriation (often described as creating a form of “cultural copyright”). Those controls are likely to have a profound impact on how and what we publish–they already have, in fact–and even on the accessibility of work published decades in the past.
In theory, the two opposed goals are not irreconcilable. In practice, I’m not so sure. After reading Jeffrey Toobin’s recent New Yorker article about Google’s ongoing efforts to upload millions of books to the web, I trolled Google Book Search (still way in beta) and was blown away. I typed in “Moyobamba,” the name of a Peruvian town not far from where I did fieldwork in the 1970s and 80s, and immediately found a half dozen travelers’ descriptions of the town from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. OK, most of these works are obscure for good reasons, but I might never have encountered them otherwise. Once every ethnography is available to everyone with a computer, what chance do indigenous people have of limiting access to information increasingly defined by them as “sacred” or “sensitive”?
The currently fashionable proposal for dealing with this is to insist that the world defer to “traditional law”–to let the rules of each indigenous group determine how its cultural productions will be used (or not), and by whom. There is an undeniable feel-good quality to this approach. It appears respectful of local values and local sovereignty. It thumbs its nose at the universalizing pretensions of social science and, more important, global capital and the IPR system on which it increasingly depends. It rightly questions simplistic claims about the world’s cultural commons and the moral standing of the public domain as it currently exists.
By and large, though, the IPR problem exists not within the sovereign space of communities, which are mostly free to control information as they see fit, but in the global “space” of the internet and mass media. So how are the traditional laws of hundreds of different micro-nations supposed to be applied in this unruly zone? This is never adequately explained. And it ignores the still more difficult issue of how groups establish that a given cultural element is theirs in the first place.
I’m reminded of a story in Sabina Magliocco’s fine ethnography of American pagans, Witching Culture, in which Lakota elders take it upon themselves to chastize a group of Wiccans for committing an act of cultural appropriation against the Lakota by worshipping in a sacred circle. To which the Wiccans are obliged to reply, respectfully, that the sacredness of circles is not a belief limited to or invented by the Lakota.
A more imaginative approach is woven through recent work coming out of PNG–notably, the essays in Hirsch & Strathern’s Transactions and Creations. Instead of focusing on local sovereignty rights, contributors to the Hirsch and Strathern volume ask, among other things, whether the rest of world can learn useful things from the ways people in PNG approach creativity, intangible property, and transactions involving both.
It’s an intriguing question. Whether the rest of the world is prepared to learn from PNG or anywhere outside of corporate boardrooms is another matter, of course. But I’m cautiously optimistic that change–albeit modest and slow–is in the wind. You can get hints of it from the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), which has shown considerable interest in questions of traditional cultural and intellectual property.
Next time: Dilemmas of protecting traditional cultural property in plain sight