Wednesday, December 26, 2007

You Can Walk Like King Tut, But Don't Copy Him

In the late 1980s, when I was a Policy Planning Advisor to the Register of Copyrights, I went on a few U.S. Government delegations to Egypt in an effort to convince the Egyptian government to “improve” its copyright law. I went with good friends Joe Papovich of USTR (now at RIAA) and Richard Owens of the PTO (now at WIPO), as well as a chap from the State Department whose name I forget and wanted to forget even then. Somewhere, there are pictures of us riding camels at the Pyramids. On the taxi trip to the Pyramids, we drove by tens of thousands shantytowns where the children barely had clothes on, where there was no sewage disposal, no running water, no electricity, and likely little food. In the city, walking to the Cairo Museum, I saw a man, weighing less than 100 pounds, pulling himself along on the ground on his stomach, as thousands of other very poor people trudged along.

Our mission was to get the Egyptian government to clamp down on unauthorized videocassettes and music tapes, which were alleged to pose a serious threat to U.S. corporate interests. I also visited Egyptian universities that used unauthorized books in their courses, a threat to U.S. book publishers. The Egyptians officials we met with were wonderful: gentle, extremely hospitable, and quite willing to help to the limited extent they could, and those limits were severe. To begin with, there was no way the Egyptian public could afford to pay Western prices, and until the pricing was fitted to the public’s ability to pay, there would be unauthorized copying; this was also true of the universities: no one I met advocated taking without paying, but everyone wanted to educate the public.

The Egyptian government officials helpfully suggested that the U.S. companies enter into distribution deals with Egyptians; that way, when a dispute arose, the dispute would be perceived more as one between two Egyptian commercial interests. They also requested financial assistance and training for customs officials. Egypt turned the table too, by requesting assistance with stamping out authorized copying of Egyptian films in the U.S.: Egypt has long had the Middle East’s most vibrant film industry and its movies were widely watched, especially by Arabic speakers in the U.S.

Back home again, we reported our meetings to industry, and none of the Egyptian advice was taken, and as far as I know, nothing was done to help Egyptian filmmakers here, although I suggested using a back-door to the UCC through first publication in Lebanon for older films.

Yesterday, there were stories about proposed legislation by the Egyptian government to stop the copying in the West of famous Egyptian landmarks., like the Pyramids, the Sphinx, and Luxor. Zahi Hawass, the head of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, is quoted as saying:
"The new law will completely prohibit the duplication of historic Egyptian monuments which the Supreme Council of Antiquities considers 100-percent copies … .If the law is passed then it will be applied in all countries of the world so that we can protect our interests… It is Egypt's right to be the only copyright owner for these monuments in order to benefitLink financially so we can restore, preserve and protect Egyptian monuments."

The proposal is said to not "forbid local or international artists from profiting from drawings and other reproductions of pharaonic and Egyptian monuments from all eras - as long as they don't make exact copies. ... Artists have the right to be inspired by everything that surrounds them, including monuments," he is reported to have said. Mr. Hawass is also quoted as opining that the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas (currently the real Luxor is a love nest for French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Italian model Carla Bruni) is "not an exact copy of pharaonic monuments despite the fact it's in the shape of a pyramid. Others are reported to feel differently: the opposition newspaper Al-Wafd published an article Sunday calling for the hotel to pay a portion of it’s lodging and gambling profits to the city of Luxor. The newspaper wrote: "Thirty-five million tourists visit Las Vegas to see the reproduction of Luxor city while only six million visit the real Egyptian city of Luxor." Yet, Samir Farag, chair of Luxor town council acknowledged :"We can't forbid people from using the name of Luxor and copying monuments from (Luxor) city, which is the world's richest city for monuments," adding refreshingly, "tourists going to Las Vegas doesn't affect our city's business."

I don’t know how the distinctions thought of would be made, but if made, Egypt could lay claim to the longest copyright term in the world, by millennia. But to what end? How is that Mr. Hawass thinks that the law would be enforced in other countries for acts that occur in other countries? And what about Steve Martin’s famous King Tut dance and song routine, available here.


Anonymous said...

I am always fascinated by stories about copyright in emerging markets. It's not just films: Cairo may only be rivaled by Bombay as locus for sheer number and brilliance of musical developments that don't answer to, or aren't rooted in, trends coming out of NY and LA.

If any of you know good blogs or sources about how nuts-and-bolts ground enforcement of intellectual property rights works in India or Egypt, I'd love to see them. (I've heard rumors about the common use of civil raids and the like, none of which I know are true.)

Anonymous said...

Is the Egyptian government trying to copyright the pyramids as architectural works? In that case, Las Vegas casinos could have a lawsuit coming their way from the French government for Eiffel Tower replicas :-)

The bigger problem in the historical heritage field for the Egyptian government, as well as the Iraqi government, is the theft of unique art works. Sadly enough, copyright law can't do much about that...

Dan said...

Egypt is highly arrogant if they think their new law will be enforceable in other countries, in the absence of specific treaties permitting it.