Sunday, January 21, 2007

Biopiracy and Music

Just watched an Arte documentary on Biopiracy, Globalisation, Biodiversity, Patent Law, and Neo-colonialism called «Biopiraterie: une nouvelle forme de colonisation» (showing on Télé-Québec, the most anthro-friendly tv station around here!). Lots of fascinating comments providing a balanced view of the main issues from the perspective of articulate participants from Mexico, India, and Brazil.
The exemplary case was that of an indigenous strain of yellow beans from Mexico which has been patented and the U.S., with the patent owner requesting royalties on imported Mexican beans. The consensus among (agricultural and social) scientists is that such a case demonstrate abuse of the patent system (and the so-called "Intellectual Property").

All of this made me think about appropriation, by Euro-Americans, of musics from other parts of the world. This happens especially often with musics from Africa and South America. Often the arguments are less visibly economic than with biopiracy, but the effects are quite similar.
Some people see this as "stealing" a society's products. This approach is what I tend to call the "loaf of bread theory" as advocates often talk about "intellectual property" as if it were made of physical goods, like a loaf of bread. There are clear laws against stealing so these people tend to see increased coercion through law enforcement as the main solution.
Others think that stealing isn't the issue but what is at stake is that members of a given society are prevented by outsiders from using local products in ways which can benefit their own society as well as the world as a whole. I see myself as a member of the second camp.
The parallel with music? When, say, a German "recording artist" uses a sample from an unnamed singer in a remote village in the Niger Delta on a broadly successful album without giving anything back to anyone in West Africa, global inequalities and the dominant position of the Recording Industry mean that the performances of African musicians will be perceived partly through the German musician's albums. For the village singer, it may not mean that much and it's quite possible that she may use the German recording as a marketing device to start a career as a professional musician. But for other performers of the same musical items as well as for many people linked with local musics in Africa and elsewhere, it means that they enter the game with a loaded dice that they didn't choose.
A related perspective, in a blog entry on Biopiracy and Music Piracy:
Whilst big industry is trying to fight an all out war against music piracy down to ruining individual students with well publicized court cases, big industry is opposing strenuously the declaration of the sources of genetic material.
As explained by interviewees in Biopiraterie, this isn't much of a contradiction since multi-nationals are simply being greedy as they are wont to be (as even some CEOs admit).
Strains of life forms, like musical performances, should not be confused with commodities.

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