“Indigenous advocates from around the world are calling on a UN committee to ban the appropriation of Indigenous cultures — and to do it quickly….Since it began in 2001, the committee [a “specialized international committee within the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), a United Nations agency”] has been working on creating and finishing three pieces of international law that would expand intellectual-property regulations to protect things like Indigenous designs, dances, words and traditional medicines.” [CBC/Yahoo]
Explains the WIPO site: “Traditional cultural expressions (TCEs), also called ‘expressions of folklore’, may include music, dance, art, designs, names, signs and symbols, performances, ceremonies, architectural forms, handicrafts and narratives, or many other artistic or cultural expressions.” Also under consideration are rules for “genetic resources” such as seeds, and folk or traditional knowledge.
One wonders how the novel intellectual property regime being contemplated will diverge from earlier, longstanding IP regimes on such questions as which products of the human mind are subject to protection, how long property rights in cultural expression are to persist after original creation and dissemination, and when if ever creative expressions originating with individuals, whether recently or generations ago, may (or must) have their rights assigned to national or ethnic collectives claiming to represent them. Presumably it will be difficult to limit the idea of collective property rights in folkloric expression to indigenous or tribal groups only, and other national groups and ethnicities, including the economically advanced, will also get in line to stake future claims.
Ed Krayewski, writing at Reason, points out that the project could have a potentially welcome consequences if it serves to impede the patenting by sophisticated Western concerns of medicines that were already in traditional usage, and likewise for the copyrighting of traditional designs and the like. Of course, intellectual property systems already are not generally supposed to confer IP rights on knowledge, uses, or expressions that were in use or known about before the claimant’s purported act of creativity, but national IP systems may not always do a good job of recognizing prior art, use, or knowledge.
For the most part, however, this is an effort to restrict the public domain and the creative and expressive liberties it brings with it. Note that an American law professor, formerly United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, is helping push it; earlier on Prof. James Anaya, now dean at Colorado, here.