Posted to the Ethnos Project by on November 26th, 2013

The very cultural heritage that gives indigenous peoples their identity, now far more than in the past, is under real or potential assault from those who would gather it up, strip away its honored meanings, convert it to a product, and sell it. Each time that happens the heritage itself dies a little, and with it its people.

Societies without change aren’t authentic; they’re just dead.

Commentators agree: traditional culture is in danger. As the effects of globalization extend their reach to the world’s far-flung corners, it is putting pressure on pockets of cultural diversity that have hitherto resisted change. The question is what policy makers should do in response.

This article explores two approaches to regulating traditional culture within intellectual property law. We can characterize these contrasting approaches as offering a choice between preservation and innovation. Preservationists seek to harness intellectual property rights to safeguard traditional culture in its authentic form. By contrast, an innovation approach encourages tradition to evolve into new forms of expression. Because an innovation model offers the most viable strategy for sustaining traditional culture in the long run, this Article argues that global policy efforts should be reweighted accordingly.

As the dueling quotations above intimate, the preservation and innovation models stem from diverging conceptions of the challenge facing traditional culture. Preservationists, such as Tom Greaves, locate the threat externally in the corrupting influence of global markets: The commodification of cultural heritage contaminates its source, distorting the meaning of tradition in ways that imperil the survival of both the heritage and its people.

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