Last December I posted a short item on the book and musical, King Island Christmas. King Island Christmas is a children's book about events in the Alaskan Inupiat Eskimo community of King Island in the 1950s. Although the village site on King Island was abandoned many years ago, the King Islanders are still a distinct community in Nome, Alaska.
At least some of them aren't thrilled by the book and musical. Beth Marino wrote about their concerns in The Nome Nugget in November, 2002:
"Who owns the Native Alaskan culture and how far do those rights extend? It seems like an easy question to answer, but cultural ownership can turn into a prickly situation; as the King Island Native Community is finding out.
The King Island Native Community asked for support from the Alaska Federation of Native delegates this year, as the Islanders prepare their case against the theft of intellectual and cultural property rights.
The resolution passed by AFN to protect cultural rights came into being because of an unsanctioned theatre company that has found success peddling a play called King Island Christmas. According to the King Island Community, the tribe was neither consulted on the play nor received recognition or compensation in any manner and they are busy wondering what, if anything, they can do to reclaim their ownership of culture..."
Also see George Sabo's letter to the editor of the Nugget the following week (you'll need to scroll down the page a bit). Sabo's concerns are focused on the musical. He believes it: (1) misrepresents the King Island culture, (2) was produced without King Island input, (3) was produced by a company that misappropriated the King Island name, and (3) did not result in any compensation to the King Islanders. He thinks this situation is unjust.
The story and letter are 18 months old. The story indicates that the King Islanders were thinking about pursuing legal remedies, but I'm not sure about the current status of those efforts.
I'd been a little perplexed by the story. What would a copyright on a culture mean? Presumably it would provide a community - (how to define it and its cultural inheritance?) - with control over how cultural motifs are used and with a right to the income from their use. It wouldn't serve the purpose of encouraging creative activity since it would be protecting creation that had taken place in the past. It would stifle creative activity by increasing the costs of using materials from different cultures to create new things.
Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution reports today on other parties interested in cultural copyrights.
"Recent UNESCO/WIPO proposals have called for the creation of copyright in folklore and oral culture. In other words, if a corporation drew from the native stories of a tribe, it would owe royalties or could face legal sanctions.
We all know that U.S. copyright typically protects the expression of an idea, and not the idea itself. But hey, native tales and folklore are expressions of sorts, just not durable ones in the way we are accustomed to protecting. I don't see any principle in the pure theory of copyright itself that should rule out such an extension..."
Cowen provides useful links to other on-line cultural copyright resources. Eloise at Spitbull posts on the issues Cowen raises, in "The Folklore Of Copyright Law" Eloise makes economic arguments similar to mine above, and adds links to other online materials on copyright issues.
P.S. 3-11-04 Tyler Cowen has a follow-up post laying out more of the pros and cons of copyrighting folklore. Let me draw your attention to two other items as well. The online version of Indian Country carries a story on "Sovereignty and Intellectual Property Rights by Rebecca L. Adamson. The World Intellectual Property Organization has a web page at its site on "Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge, and Folklore".
P.P.S. 3-13-04 On January 20, MSNBC carried a story on the upcoming anthropological field work on old King Island.
For more posts on King Island: King Island.
Proofreading correction April 16, 2009.