Last week was IP Week here in Jamaica. the Jamaica Intellectual Property Office sponsored a series of events in order to promote and educate people regarding intellectual property.
There were some interesting moments from the concert celebrating creativity.
The first moment was that the concert was kicked off by a performance of maroons, drumming and singing and dancing. Maroons are an important cultural group in Jamaica, who claim connection to African traditions, and who are present at many events where Jamaica presents itself to outsiders, but also appear (from Jamaicans, including Maroons, that I talk to) to represent something about Jamaican-ness to Jamaicans... although again relying heavily on a relationship to "Africa" or sometimes more specific regions and ethnic groups.
What interested me about the performance was that I wasn't sure what the "property" was, and there seemed to be different and interesting implications for the basis of ownership. In this celebration of creativity in the service of promoting IP, I could see Maroons as claiming a collective ownership in their drumming patterns, but that ownership was also complicated by claiming a relationship to Africa that means that Africans could also claim ownership. I know some Africans who are unhappy with members of the Diaspora claiming african-ness and feel that there is some appropriation going on.. although the appropriation can also be a sign of connection, I wondered whether it ever leads to disputes or criticism over the rights of people descended from africans to claim ownership (and what kind of ownership) over the concept african, or particular practices that africans currently engage in.
I watched an interaction between a Rasta man who gave his name as a name I know from Nigeria. A Nigerian guy next to me said "that's our name. that's a name form my country." His tone of voice was ambiguous. He didn't sound angry, he sounded interested, but also like he was educating either the rasta man or other listeners. the conversation didn't continue, but it made me think about disputes over naming. People name themselves, their bands, their art in order to reference or tribute others, but sometimes the others don't take it that way. (I remember a conversation with the director of the Alpha Boys School where he was angry about a German ska band who had "taken their name." The school is a historic engine of ska musicianship with scads of amazing artists coming from it. It's possible the ska band was linking itself to that tradition, paying tribute to the school, and trying to demonstrate and educate musical history - but the director saw it as unfairly trading on the school's reputation)
to go back to the drumming and singing and dancing. I'm not sure whether the law could have protected anything about the performance. Of course, a recording would have been protected in terms of sampling.. but in terms of ownership of the drum patterns, or even the songs (which consisted of short, repetitive call & response phrases, some of which I have heard before in other performances).. the ownership implied here is not really I think what copyright is well suited to protect. There is a really interesting branch of international law based more in human rights arguments aout "cultural survival" - but also in negotiations over folklore and "cultural heritage" - but the kinds of arguments and justifications used to justify access or exclusion seem rather different. Certainly the US-style argument about copyright "incentivizing creativity" seems ludicrous in the face of people arguing for a centuries-old tradition.