Younging on Traditional Knowledge and Intellectual Property

A Caribbean Steel drum, an instrument made using traditional knowledge
A Caribbean Steel drum, an instrument made using traditional knowledge

Dr. Gregory Younging, at the University of British Columbia, has an interesting essay in the Pennsylvania Journal of International Law titled “Traditional Knowledge Exists; Intellectual Property is Invented or Created“. From the introduction:

Prior to contact with Europeans between 300 and 600 years ago, Traditional Knowledge (TK) systems had developed and flourished over thousands of years in various parts of the world. These knowledge systems are rich and varied, ranging from soil and plant taxonomy, cultural and genetic information, animal husbandry, medicine and pharmacology, ecology, zoology, music, arts, architecture, social welfare, governance, conflict management, and many others. Most of these TK systems continue to exist and evolve; at the same time, they have been appropriated and subjected to Western legal regimes. Indigenous cultural expressions are manifestations of TK that are passed on by Indigenous ancestors through successive generations. They are, in turn, inherited by current, to be passed on to future, generations.

Auctions and Civil Disobedience (UPDATE)

The Christie’s Auction catalog with a bronze rabbit head

Earlier this week I was able to watch a screening on Earth Day of ‘Bidder 70’ a new documentary which examines the story of Tim DeChristopher. He was sentenced to two years in prison, and a $10,000 fine. His crime? He attended an oil and gas lease auction and bid on Utah land which was being leased for oil and gas exploration with no intent to buy the land (he didn’t have the money) or to drill on it. I’m not as interested in going through a review of the documentary itself. I thought overall its well worth taking a look at, but my biggest frustration with the story was it left out a lot of the details of the auction process, how he was able to bid and refuse to pay, and how his act of civil disobedience ended up being successful.

From what I gathered the Bush administration in their last weeks in office put opened up lots of land for oil and gas leases, and that DeChristopher successfully ruined these auctions. And then when the Obama administration took office the Department of the Interior later decided not to auction these parcels of land after all. The film does a great job of presenting DeChristopher’s story, and conveying his indignation at the ruination of what appears to be some pristine Utah wilderness.

But watching the documentary I was most struck by the connections between a couple of events that I’ve traced here before: the Bronze zodiac auctions in France from the Yves Saint-Laurent sale, and the sentencing of antiquities looters in Utah. Environmental and cultural heritage issues are inextricably linked, and the different priorities of prosecution and sentencing on display here were really striking.

If you aren’t familiar with the sad saga of the Chinese Zodiac heads, here’s a quick overview. Over 150 years ago the Summer Palace near Beijing was looted by British troops. Lots of art was burned, looted, destroyed, or lost. Some objects which had been taken were parts of a beautiful ornate fountain/clock mechanism which had the 12 Chinese zodiac animals. A handful of these still existing heads have been purchased by Chinese repatriation advocates on the open market. And two of these bronze figurines, the rabbit and the rat were acquired by Yves Saint Laurent. Well on his death many objects from his estate were set to go up for auction at Christie’s in Paris. But the looting of the Chinese Summer Palace is a notorious event in Chinese history, and the Chinese government lodged a number of protests at the sale. When the two heads were up for auction, the successful bid was nearly 32 million Euro. The winning bidder was Cao Mingchao, owner of a small auction house in China. After the auction he refused to pay the bid, exacting the same kind of civil disobedience that DeChristopher went to prison for. After the auction Mingchao stated “What I want to stress is that this money cannot be paid (…) I think any Chinese person would have stood up at that moment. It was just that the opportunity came to me. I was merely fulfilling my responsibilities.” Despite some hints at a French prosecution of the bidder, those never materialized and the heads as I understand it were never actually auctioned.

There have been a number of controversial sales of Precolumbian and native american sacred items in France in recent months. And it seems that despite some legal attempts to block sales, this kind of technically legal, but morally objectionable auction; which the current heritage law framework deems ok; will only be blocked if an auction house bends to public pressure or if there’s a bidder exercising civil disobedience.

Remember that in this part of the country the Four-Corners investigation uncovered a large network of illicit native american objects. That investigation led to 3 suicides and a number of citizens being indicted and later pleading guilty to heritage crimes. But no custodial sentences have been imposed. The sad takeaway is I think that you can loot native american sites, and the Federal government will have irregular investigations, but mess with the leasing of oil and gas, and you’ll feel the weight of the federal government.

Here’s the trailer for Bidder 70:
Bidder 70 – Trailer from Gage & Gage Productions on Vimeo.

UPDATE:

And now it looks like the rat and rabbit will be returned to China: http://bit.ly/ZpP67I

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

My Piece on Property and Heritage

When writers discuss stolen art, repatriation or looting one of the threshold problems is how to classify these objects: either as property or as heritage. It seems to me both concepts are distinct, and in a piece which is now available from the Penn. State Law Review, I’ve argued both should be separated. Here’s the abstract:

This piece takes up the competing concepts of property and heritage. Recent scholarship views property as a series of connections and obligations – rather than the traditional power to control, transfer or exclude. This new view of property may be safeguarding resources for future generations, but also imposes onerous obligations based on concerns over environmental protection, the protection of cultural resources, group rights, and even rights to digital property. Yet these obligations can also be imposed on subsequent generations, and certain obligations are imposed now based on the actions of past generations.
This article examines the multigenerational aspects of property via a body of law which should be called heritage law. Heritage law now governs a wide range of activities some of which include: preventing destruction of works of art, preventing the theft of art and antiquities, preventing the illegal excavation of antiquities, preventing the mutilation and destruction of ancient structures and sites, creating a means for preserving sites and monuments, and even righting past wrongs. This piece justifies the new conceptualization in two ways. First, by showing that properly distinguishing property and heritage will allow us to better protect heritage with a richer, fuller understanding of the concept. And second by demonstrating how current definitions lead to imprecise analysis, which may produce troubling legal conclusions. 

A growing body of heritage law has extended the limitations periods for certain cultural disputes. This has shifted the calculus for the long-term control of real, movable, and even digital property. This can be acutely seen with respect to cultural repatriation claims – specifically the claims of claimants to works of art forcibly taken during World War II; or the claims by Peru to certain anthropological objects now in the possession of Yale University which were removed by Hiram Bingham in the early part of the 20th Century.

You can download the whole article here. I’d be most interested to hear any comments at derek.fincham “at” gmail.com

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Student Note on Orphaned Works and Cultural History

Brianna Dahlberg has posted a student note on orphaned works and access to cultural history in the Southern California Review of Law & Social Justice. From the abstract:

Orphan works are copyrighted works whose owners are difficult or impossible to find. They include a vast number of old works in museums, archives and libraries that are not being commercially exploited by rights holders because they are out-of-print, unpublished or anonymous, but nonetheless have cultural or historical significance. However, if the institutions cannot locate the rights holders, they cannot publish or publicly display these works without risking a copyright infringement lawsuit should the rights holders come forward in the future. This Note addresses a new aspect of the orphan works problem: its disproportionate impact on works created by racial and religious minorities, women, Native Americans and other indigenous people, and the poor. Locating rights holders for early-twentieth century works by these groups tends to be especially difficult for a variety of reasons. Minority and poor white musicians were routinely excluded from performing rights organizations until the 1940s and were less likely to register their copyrights. Women and minority visual artists often created their works apart from the established gallery system, and their artworks tend to be less exhibited and well-known. The identifying information for folk art and traditional Native American art is often lost. As a result, many of these important works remain locked away in archives and inaccessible to the public. This Note proposes a solution to the orphan works problem with the goals of promoting broader cultural access and participation in mind. I evaluate four potential approaches, and conclude that the Nordic countries’ solution of extended collective licensing would best serve the goal of promoting access to cultural works of disadvantaged groups while fairly compensating rights holders who do come forward.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Stewarding the Watts Towers

I remember driving through LA for the first time five years ago, seeing these towers from the distance, and wondering what kind of crazy accident created those. I only learned later they were the work of one man, building on his own. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is nearing an agreement to oversee the restoration and preservation of the Watts Towers:

Director of Lacma’s conservation department, Mark Gilberg, aims to take a more holistic approach to conservation efforts, which up until now have been short-term. “We are rethinking procedures and adopting ones that will be more proactive than reactive,” says Gilberg. Initial delays regarding insurance concerns have been resolved with the promise that Lacma will not be financially responsible for any gross negligence while working on the towers.

The decision to recruit the museum comes amidst a major budget shakedown across the state, which has resulted in slashed funding to nearly every sector. The state-owned Watts Towers “are in a situation where they are fighting a battle all the time,” explains Lacma spokeswoman, Barbara Pflaumer. Last year, before Los Angeles’s municipal budget was cut, the offer for Lacma’s conservation expertise was $300,000. Olga Garay, the head of the city’s department of cultural affairs, has reportedly put the total restoration costs at $5m.

 I’ve probably linked to it before, but after the jump you can see a 1957 documentary showing Simon Rodia at work:

  1. Marisa Mazria Katz, Lacma nears deal on Watts Towers project The Art Newspaper, http://www.theartnewspaper.com/articles/Lacma+nears+deal+on+Watts+Towers+project/22146 (last visited Jan 4, 2011).

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

My New Piece on Property and Heritage

I have posted on SSRN a working draft titled “The Distinctiveness of Property and Heritage“.  I argue we need to be careful to observe and honor the differences between the competing ideas of property and heritage by discussing how the law may be shifting to meet new challenges.  The end result I think will be a renewed appreciation for cultural claims via a body of law which can be called “heritage law”.  As always any comments or criticisms would be most appreciated.  Also, if any readers have any works in progress they would like me to publicize, or if you have a recent piece you would like me to share, please do pass them along.

Here is the abstract to my work in progress:



This piece takes up the competing concepts of property and heritage. Recent scholarship views property as a series of connections and obligations – rather than the traditional power to control, transfer or exclude. This new view of property may be safeguarding resources for future generations, but also imposes onerous obligations based on concerns over environmental protection, the protection of cultural resources, group rights, and even rights to digital property. Yet these obligations can also be imposed on subsequent generations, and certain obligations are imposed now based on the actions of past generations.

This article examines the multigenerational aspects of property via a body of law which should be called heritage law. Heritage law now governs a wide range of activities some of which include: preventing destruction of works of art, preventing the theft of art and antiquities, preventing the illegal excavation of antiquities, preventing the mutilation and destruction of ancient structures and sites, creating a means for preserving sites and monuments, and even righting past wrongs. This piece justifies the new conceptualization in two ways. First, by showing that properly distinguishing property and heritage will allow us to better protect heritage with a richer, fuller understanding of the concept. And second by demonstrating how current definitions lead to imprecise analysis, which may produce troubling legal conclusions.

A growing body of heritage law has extended the limitations periods for certain cultural disputes. This has shifted the calculus for the long-term control of real, movable, and even digital property. This can be acutely seen with respect to cultural repatriation claims – specifically the claims of claimants to works of art forcibly taken during World War II; or the claims by Peru to certain anthropological objects now in the possession of Yale University which were removed by Hiram Bingham in the early part of the 20th Century.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

My Article on Conflict of Laws and Cultural Property

I have posted on SSRN the final version of my paper titled How Adopting the Lex Originis Rule Can Impede the Flow of Illicit Cultural Property, 32 Columbia Journal of Law and the Arts 111.

Pictured here is a Byzantine mosaic from the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, similar to the mosaics taken from Northern Cyprus which gave rise to the Goldberg suit. The Seventh Circuit Federal Court of Appeals upheld the default—and problematic for cultural property disputes—lex situs rule in holding “Indiana law and rules govern every aspect of this action, from the statute of limitations issues through the application of the substantive law of replevin.” The trial court had noted that although Switzerland was the location of the wrongful activity, it bore little connection to the cause of action. None of the parties or important actors was Swiss; the mosaics had never been in the stream of commerce in Switzerland; and they had only been on Swiss soil for four days. The jurisdiction with the closest connection to the objects was Cyprus, not Indiana. After all, the mosaics had been firmly fixed to the church for over 1400 years. Although it would therefore make sense to give concessions in the law to jurisdictions such as Cyprus, courts have shown a hesitancy to apply the law of the source nation, or lex originis.

Here is the abstract:


The International trade and transfer of art and antiquities faces problems because nations have erected very different rules with respect to movable property. All nations forbid theft, however most cultural property disputes involve an original owner and a subsequent good faith possessor. Different jurisdictions have chosen to allocate rights and responsibilities between these two relative innocents in very different ways. Disharmony in the law is seldom a good thing, but in the realm of cultural property it can be particularly damaging to the interests of nations, museums, individuals, and our collective cultural heritage. The lack of harmony ensures no overarching policy choices will be furthered, which prevents parties from anticipating legal outcomes and giving substance to policies.

This article explores the default conflict of law rules which are applied to cultural property, and shows how the lex situs rule exploits the various legal rules which apply to art and antiquities. It challenges the lofty position enjoyed by the lex situs rule and proposes a radical reform of the default choice of law analysis. By employing the law of the Nation of Origin or lex originis courts can ensure the jurisdiction with the most tangible connection to an object enjoys the benefit of applying its legal rules to a given dispute. This will not only ensure the security of art and antiquities transactions, but impart much-needed transparency into the cultural property trade, and finally will decrease the theft and illegal excavation of art and antiquities.

The article begins by presenting some examples of recent disputes, and the problems they present for the law and cultural heritage policy. Section II describes the fundamental difficulty of adjudicating claims between two relative innocents, and the disharmony which has resulted as different jurisdictions have resolved this conundrum in very different ways. Section III lays out the ways in which private international law impacts art and antiquities disputes. Section IV analyzes the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention, the most recent attempt to harmonize the law affecting cultural property. Section V proposes a radical reform of the choice of law enquiry taken by courts.

Keywords: art, antiquities, private international law, conflict of laws, international law, lex originis, lex situs, renvoi, art theft, antiquities, cultural heritage, cultural property

I’d be delighted to hear any reactions to the work at derek.fincham “at” gmail.com.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com