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Ethnomusicology


COPYRIGHT AND FOLKLORE

Author:                   City : Baku   Country : Azerbaijan
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       Oral traditions constitute a powerful cultural force and an inexhaustible spiritual resource in the history of mankind. Many a venerated literary work has its origins in the songs and narratives of anonymous oral singers and storytellers. In India, for example, the early classical epics Mahaabhaarata and Raamaaya-na are attributed to the great poets Vyaasa and Vaalmiiki, respectively, even though the historical knowledge about the creation processes in question is scanty. The scholarly understanding is, however, that the poetic materials of both epics largely existed in oral forms before the idea of a truly long and well-integrated superstory was conceived by some individual sage or poet and before the narrative was codified into a written form.

       Orality never fully conceded its role to literacy and literature. Performance traditions are a case in point: they have remained oral in a variety of ways. The story of Raama has been recited, sung, danced and orally enacted in dozens of languages in about 20 South and Southeast Asian countries over the centuries. The result is that we have today hundreds of Raamaaya-nas which show so few common features that it is doubtful whether these narratives stem from a common root. Some scholars see here only parallel traditions, not derivations from one and the same story. To complicate the matter further, there are hundreds of anti-Raamaaya-nas or local oral epics which reflect popular interpretations of some themes of the classical epic and shape their meaning to suit mainly local, social and communal ends.

       In other words, orality and literacy, deesi and maargi, folk literature and classical literature have been in a constant dialogue in the past and that dialogue still continues today. In the face of such cultural variety, which seems to question the true identity of the Raama story, it may appear futile to ask questions of copyright. Who is the rightful owner of the Raama story, if it exists? The quick way out of this dilemma seems to be offered by the age of most tellings and retellings of the Raama stories. They have passed the limit of, say, 70 years, and consequently they belong to the public domain. Unfortunately, the matter is not quite that simple.

       i am a folklorist and humanist, not a copyright lawyer. Yet I was invited in 1982 and the following years to participate in several meetings organised by WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization) and Unesco in Geneva and Paris. One product of these meetings was the «Draft Treaty for the Protection of Expressions of Folklore Against illicit Exploitation and Other Prejudicial Actions», formulated in 1983 but never formally adopted by Unesco. Another document pertaining to the application of copyright on folklore and produced by several Intergovernmental Expert Committees, in which I had the privilege of participating during 1982-89, was the «Recommendation on the Safeguarding of Traditional Culture and Folklore», adopted by Unesco's General Assembly in November 1989. I wrote two working documents for the latter process and presided over the meeting in Paris in May 1987 which finalised the Recommendation text. About 80 Member States of Unesco were represented and dozens of Non-Governmental Organizations sent their observers to the meetings. Let me briefly sketch the relevance of these two authoritative statements as regards copyright and folklore.

       The background

       First a few words about how it all began. The idea that folklore could be copyrighted was obviously in the air in the early 1970s, since it emerged independently in two contexts at least. In 1973, the Government of Bolivia submitted to the Director-General of Unesco the request that Unesco begin to examine the state of folklore and make a proposal for an addition to the Universal Copyright Convention. The background to this action may be illustrated by an anecdote which may or may not be true. It was at about that time that the pop singer Paul Simon published his song «El Condor Pasa», which was soon identified as a Bolivian folk song. Since the record brought the «author» considerable revenue, it was felt that at least some of it should be channelled back to Bolivia.

       At any rate, the initiative to copyright folklore reflects the more widely felt need in the developing countries to draw new intellectual strength from the country's own unique, freely developed folk tradition once the country becomes freed from its colonial ties. The term «traditional culture» was preferred to «folklore», because the latter carried disparaging Western overtones. Concern was expressed not only over the economic exploitation of folklore but also over the exportation of traditional culture and presentation outside its original contexts in a way that offended against the communities producing and preserving this tradition. Misonstrued performances belittled their cultural identity and values.


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