According to a report from the BBC, the Egyptian Government is about to enact a copyright law to protect Egyptian antiquities, and this law would apply to all nations. Zahi Hawass, who leads the Supreme Council for Antiquities (the agency responsible for Egypt’s cultural heritage) claims that the licensing money is needed to maintain monuments in Egypt.

The main target of this very far reaching legislation seems to be ancient Egyptian-themed commercial parks. Commercial uses of Egyptian antiquities (such as a picture of the Giza Pyramids) would require a license from the Egyptian state, as would any “full-scale” replica.

Comment:

This is in some ways understandable, but in other ways it comes from Bizzaro-land.

It’s understandable because the US and the European Union have long advocated intellectual property maximalism (expanding the scope and reach of copyright and patents), usually to the disadvantage of the developing world. The Egyptian case, in many ways, reflects a growing trend on the part of the “Global South” to attempt to use their own versions of intellectual property protectionism for their advantage. For example, Peru has laws to regulate access to genetic resources of its natural heritage. Similarly, India has also enacted legislation to protect some traditional medical knowledge. The issue of “bio-piracy” in general reflects how nations in the developing world as well as some indigenous communities are attempting to use intellectual property legal frameworks to benefit from developments in biotechnology.

That said, intellectual property laws, in general, are typically justified to encourage innovation and creativity. Without some legal rules to extract rents, theoretically there would be less incentive to invent new technologies or make new art. Egypt’s move to claim copyright over 4000-year old monuments obviously has nothing to do with motivating new creativity or invention, since the creators of these antiquities are long dead. (Note: neither does Walt Disney’s continually demand to exclusively own Mickey Mouse…) In our legal system, such works would belong to the public domain, and would be available to all for any purpose.

This is another case of how the public domain is a highly contested concept, being undermined by intellectual property maximalists in the developed world and being questioned by some developing nations and indigenous community organizations. Instead, it seems that this is just an attempt to monopolize the global popularity of Ancient Egypt. Since tourism is so strategically important for Egypt, I suppose any competition in the tourist experience of Egyptian antiquities may be something of an economic threat. Alternatively, the continual use and expression of ancient Egyptian styles, motifs, and references may be more valuable to the Egyptian state, since this continued expression may help keep ancient Egypt alive and relevant in the popular imagination, and may generate more interest to travel to the source of Egypt’s glorious past. In the same vein, just because Washington DC uses elements of classical architecture (not to mention a famous Egyptian-inspired obelisk), I seriously doubt this fact diminishes visits to Rome or Athens. But, who knows. How cultural references like this impact tourism is an issue clearly worth of some rigorous economic analysis.

In any event, I wonder how the Egyptian state will try to enforce this far-reaching copyright claim. The Egyptomania genie is long out of the bottle (at least since the New Kingdom!). There are some 17,000 images tagged as “Giza” just in Flickr. Attempting to extract licensing rents on such uses will be monumental task, on par with building the pyramids in the first place. I really can’t see how this will help Egypt or protect and maintain its monuments. To me, this will most likely be too hard and unwieldy to enforce. And if enforcement could be effective, I suspect it will benefit Egypt about as much as lawsuits and DRM have enhanced the traditional music business (and yes, it’s going down the tubes). How this law will impact research and education about Ancient Egypt is another issue of great concern. Making it harder to use images in journals and textbooks is no way to encourage understanding of the past. Finally, I also wonder how this law would impact the antiquities trade. If it is harder to create replicas and reproductions of Egyptian antiquities (because of the transaction costs associated with licensing), would more gravitate to purchasing the “real thing”?

We’re entering a brave new world of bizzare contradictions. On one hand we have new models of sharing, open IP, peer-production and collaboration as seen in open source software, the Wikipedia, Creative Commons and the access to knowledge movement. On the other hand, we have the expansion of monopolistic intellectual property claims and increasing commoditization of knowledge and culture.

Update:

Check out the discussion on Boingboing

Update 2:

Wow! Slashdot also has a lively discussion.

Update 3:

Check out the post about this on the Ancient World group blog:

Update 4:

Here’s an interesting post by William Party, senior copyright counsel at Google. He was once in Egypt as part of a US copyright delegation.