IPA bringing common sense to traditional knowledge debate at WIPO

Delegates at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) in Geneva are this week deliberating the relationship between copyright and ‘traditional knowledge’, a conversation of undervalued importance to the global publishing industry.

It would be easy but unwise for the publishing industry to ignore the agenda of WIPO’s ‘Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore’ (IGC), for it will have potential impacts on all three main sectors of the industry, as follows:

  • Authors who identify as members of indigenous peoples often draw on traditional knowledge, stories, customs or other intellectual patrimony, which steeps their writing in privileged insider credibility. This kind of publishing is a means to eternalize and propagate indigenous cultures, and underpins aboriginal authors’ freedom of expression.
  • Children deserve an education that cherishes their heritage through educational textbooks informed by home-grown ethnicity and lore. A local cultural perspective is deeply effective in connecting with students and teaching them about their place in the world. Local, innovative and viable educational publishers are crucial enablers of this process.
  • Scholarly articles in scientific journals frequently record ethnological, historical, medical or pharmaceutical findings. The freedoms of expression and of scientific research are fundamental to this publication process and need to be balanced with sensitivity towards indigenous cultural mores.

So what is the IGC trying to achieve? Broadly speaking, the committee seeks to devise an international instrument to protect indigenous peoples from unwanted distribution and exploitation of their cultural expressions and traditional knowledge. Few would argue that the impulse behind this endeavour is anything but right and proper.

However, the IPA’s concern is that the premise assumes that abusive distribution and exploitation are rife and that an international legal instrument is an efficient ‘solution’. A greater concern still is that these good intentions may actually do their intended beneficiaries more harm than good if in reality measures designed to protect these assets render them inviable.

In terms of literary culture, many of the developing countries that are the sources of this kind of cultural heritage are content rich but distribution poor. There is often a wealth of good writers but scant book ecosystem to sustain them. Regrettably, for example, many African writers can only live off their talent with support from publishers in developed countries or by becoming academics, often teaching African literature and culture in Western universities. Examples include Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Buchi Emecheta, who have each spent years teaching in the US.

Over this week and during future meetings of the IGC the IPA will monitor and respond to the deliberations, and help WIPO’s Member States understand that the current copyright and IP system is already fit for purpose and working. There are many cases of First Nation peoples using it to their advantage — from the Toi Iho ‘Maori Made’ trademark in New Zealand to recent efforts by Jamaica to allow the trademarking of locally grown Jamaican ganja.

Existing international IP frameworks are already delivering wealth by unlocking the creativity, knowledge and cultural heritage of writers in developing countries. The fact is that indigenous publishers in the developing world, who are necessarily more pragmatic than the diplomats tasked with representing them, are ready to play their role in respectfully cultivating, preserving and showcasing these otherwise undiscovered cultural riches.

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