In this age of marauding markets, it almost seems quaint to ask, “Who owns culture?” We know the answer. When push comes to shove, the owners of copyright, trademarks and patents own everything. We may think that the music, images and stories of our culture belong to us, but as a matter of law, in the 165+ countries that have signed the Berne Convention, our designated role is....to buy (and not use someone else's "property.")
A new book of essays complicates this picture. Negotiating Culture: Heritage, Ownership and Intellectual Property -- just published by the University of Massachusetts Press -- points out some of the distinct limits to “intellectual property’s” dominion. The book is a series of essays by academics from various disciplines that explores how social practice and culture have their own moral legitimacy and social power -- enough to push back on claimed property rights.
The book chronicles controversies over who should have legal rights of ownership and control over Native American remains, Green and Roman antiquities, works of art looted by the Nazis, among many other objects and resources. We are asked to consider whether culture should be treated as property that can be bought and sold (and treated accordingly), or whether it must be considered inalienable, or not suitable for sale on the market, and treated with the utmost dignity and respect.
These are the magic words: It seems that the core issue in so many of these disputes is a matter of identity, dignity, respect and, of course, power.
Museums are increasingly at the epicenter of cultural ownership issues these days. The 2005 trial in Italy of Marion True, the former curator of classical art at the J. Paul Getty Museum, is a beautiful case study of how social norms about the ownership of ancient antiquities have dramatically shifted. Prior to that trial, museums often bought or accepted donated antiquities without too much thought about the provenance of the work. After all, antiquities don’t usually come with title deeds or receipts, and it was an open secret that many of them were dug up by looters and spirited out of the country into the hands of profit-minded dealers.