Cultural Appropriation and Intellectual Property

This excellent perspective on cultural appropriation was offered by David Policar in a public post on Facebook. I thought it was worth sharing.

I continue to be amazed that people who understand perfectly well the difference between voluntary exchanges of information between peers, on the one hand, and involuntary information transfers across power imbalances, on the other, when it comes to information produced by individuals (e.g., the difference between my quoting something you’ve published, vs claiming it as my own work) or corporations (e.g., the difference between my publishing with attribution something Microsoft put on their public website, vs something I hacked off their private servers), and consistently condemn the latter without ever confusing it with the former, seem to somehow lose all sense of that difference when it comes to information produced by cultures.

David Policar
Thursday, August 3, 2017 at 10:33am

The thing is, the products of other cultures are not public property to be mauled about, misrepresented, or used without respect for their origin and meaning, especially not when such misuse harms the culture being misrepresented.

If a theatre company performs an abridged version of a Shakespeare play, they take care to inform the public that it is an abridged version. Even Bowdler, when he presented a “cleaned-up” version of Shakespeare, clearly indicated that he was presenting Shakespeare with the rude bits taken out.

If a person presents a work which is derived from the rituals, practices, or artifacts of another culture, they should clearly indicate that it is a derivative work, so that the public may make an informed choice, and choose the genuine article.

If a band does a cover version of a track by another band, they indicate that on the credits of the CD. If they perform a traditional song, they state the origins of the song in the credits. So why wouldn’t we do the same for products of another culture?

The food and wine producers of Europe have quite understandably said that champagne can only be produced in Champagne, Roquefort cheese in Roquefort, and so on.

None of this means that we cannot enjoy the products and rituals of other cultures; it does mean that we cannot do them ourselves while pretending that we are presenting the genuine article.

In some cases, we can imitate a practice, if there isn’t a huge power gradient between our culture and the one being imitated – but we should never pretend that our recreation is the genuine article.

If the tradition has been properly transmitted to you by a bona fide practitioner of that tradition, that’s a totally different matter, and you are not appropriating – but expect to be asked for your credentials, simply because there are many fraudulent practitioners out there.

There’s no single magic-bullet definition of cultural appropriation, but if you feel that something you want to do might fall into that category, have a look at the suggested definition of cultural appropriation, and consider whether it fits. And read this excellent post by Chelsea Vowel about cultural appropriation.

Further reading


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