For seasonal reasons I managed to be offline for a few days while the news broke: Egypt intends to adopt the 'our ancestors made it, someone might be prepared to pay to replicate it, so let's claim a monopoly' model of intellectual property and copyright her ancient relics. There's been some interesting commentary from William Patry and Digging Digitally, and I'd like to quote the latter:
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.
Given my thoughts about where heritage value is located, i.e. in the networks of ideas and motifs which can be manifest in both originals and derivatives, I'm predictably of the view that the proposals are not only ridiculous (and hopefully just the thing to expose the dodginess of intellectual property maximalism) but not even 'good' for Egypt's own heritage. I don't deny, of course, that funding the upkeep of Egypt's ancient sites is a genuine and serious problem. But reinforcing their exclusivity with an IP monopoly wouldn't really add anything. We already think originals have some special status, Walter Banjamin's 'aura'; the Louvre stays in business despite all those prints of the Mona Lisa. So is it 'good' for the heritage of Ancient Egypt to be limited in this fashion, when one of the most famous and indeed irreplaceable monuments has already had its nose blown off? The assumption seems to be that the heritage is paradigmatically located in the (original) relics; but we approach those relics with certain preconceptions about the significance of antiquity. In a sense, Egypt is already everywhere, and this too is a real aspect of her heritage.
I do wonder whether we're seeing a permanent shift in the significance of IP, beyond linear maximalism: increasingly pragmatic and ad hoc efforts at justification, combined with transmutation into a direct political tool where a group or its 'culture' may be identified as the originator of a work, idea or item of 'traditional knowledge'. Perhaps this is an unprecedented case of 'intellectual property nationalism'.
Hopefully we in the enlightened West won't be rushing to reciprocate; but with IP one can never be all that confident, so I'd better tell the masons to hurry up with my calendar.