Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Egypt copyrights pyramids

So, at the height of the season of indulgence, irresponsibility, and consumerism (viz 23:15 on December 25th) the BBC run a story announcing that Egypt is about to pass a law declaring copyright on all antiquities in the country.
Egypt's MPs are expected to pass a law requiring royalties be paid whenever copies are made of museum pieces or ancient monuments such as the pyramids.
Although perhaps we should be reassured by the proviso that "... the law would apply to full-scale replicas of any object in any museum in Egypt" (my emphasis). The idea seems to be that, in order to raise money for the up-keep of Pharaonic antiquities, anyone who makes a profit out of a 1:1 reproduction of a monument such as the Pyramids or the Sphinx (or any of myriads of smaller items) should share that profit with the body maintaining the original antiquities. The emphasis seems to be on hotels and casinos and the like, although presumably sellers of reproductions will also be affected. Non-profit users will need to seek government permission, but may not have to pay anything.

Perhaps the strangest twist:
Zahi Hawass, who chairs Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, told the BBC the law would apply in all countries.
Can this be so? Do I hear someone murmuring "unenforceable"? I'm sure this will be leveraged against archaeologists who already have trouble getting permits to dig if they infringe various other rules of the SCA, but would a seller of reproduction statuettes in New York or London be subject to this law? Can you imagine this being enforced in Beijing? Maybe I misunderstand the law, and I have no experience digging or otherwise working in Egypt, but it seems strange to me.

More to the point, while I have every sympathy with the need to raise money to protect and preserve antiquities, and while I can understand that one way to do this is to make the antiquities themselves profitable, I don't think this should be done by abusing the concept of copyright. Already several countries with rich ancient archaeology impose a supposed copyright on photographs of archaeological finds taken in the country, although this has been hard to enforce overseas. The repercussions of such laws on publications and especially teaching are unfortunate--even the need to ask permission before publishing a reproduction (or posting it, for example, on Flickr) is stifling too many cool initiatives to keep the love of the ancient world alive. Do I hear someone whispering "world heritage"?

I'm tempted to go off right now and create a "full-scale replica" of the Great Pyramid of Giza in Second Life, just to see who'd like to test that particular combination of legal repercussions.

I should stress, however, that this post is the ill-informed opinion of one seasonally-fatigued blogger, and not that of the site itself or its administrators. I've not been able to track down an official statement re this putative law on the websites of the Egyptian Government, the Supreme Council of Antiquities (whose website seems not to exist), nor that of its director Zahi Hawass. Anyone better informed (or with more mature opinions) on this topic than I, please leave a comment.


David Gill said...

See the report in The Guardian:,,2232295,00.html
It concludes with this comment:
"The success of the Egyptian-themed Luxor hotel and casino on the Las Vegas strip may be behind the new effort in Egypt to copyright the country's ancient archaeological wealth."

Charles Ellwood Jones said...

Interesting to note that the Luxor Casino is to be renovated, and that the Egyptian theme (aside from the shape of the building and the sphinx in front of it), will not be retained:

Ramon said...

I wonder if Greece will start demanding payments for the use of democracy next.

Charles Ellwood Jones said...

In fact the Greek governement does assert, through their Ministry of Culture, copyright over any photograph taken of any archaeological monument in Greece. It's problematic, among other things because the required fee is expressed in drachmas, and has yet to be re-expressed in euros, and the mechanism for paying/collectin the fee is not clear. The only practical enforcement of the law is that foreign publications which have not dealt with this issues cannot be sold in Ministry of Culture bookstores (i.e. Museum and archaeological site bookstores and kiosks). This is why, ffor instance, you will not find the Agora picture books ( for sale in themuseum in the Atoa of Attalos.

nathan.lea said...
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nathan.lea said...
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nathan.lea said...

I am not a legal expert, and I think that it would be interesting to get a legal expert's opinion on this (if one does not already exist) though it appears that some people have already had a go at any rate.

My initial thought on this (having some interest in the ramifications of international interpretation of copyright law as well as intellectual property and data ownership) is that the copyright ownership does not necessarily rest with the Egyptian Government or the SCA. But that is for the lawyers to debate.

With a wider consideration, I am quite pleased that this issue has been raised. Whist Hawass' statement may be prone to misinterpretation and get peoples' backs up, there is most definitely an ethical debate to be had about how curators of ancient artifacts should handle these issues.

This is a brief contribution from my lay perspective. Let us accept for the sake of argument that copyright ownership lies with a particular party or individual. In this case, the primary objective of the SCA is to fund upkeep and maintenance. There is an opportunity to consider how funds may be released from organisations that benefit from any concessions that copyright owners give to them. That, I think, opens the possibilities for newer business models to be fashioned.

If, on the other hand, we do not accept ownership, and successfully argue the world heritage case (morally, ethically and indeed legally), there exists an opportunity for other funding models to be considered (it belongs to everybody, it needs everybody's support in one way or another).

As a general rule, one should not be penny wise and pound foolish. I do wonder how much money would be made from this venture, or indeed how much will be lost, and where the effects either way will be felt.

Francis Deblauwe said...

I esp. loved comment # 14 at Boing Boing: "Iraq should pass a law saying writing was first invented in ancient Mesopotamia, and it has a copyright on all writing. Therefore all countries that use writing (including Egypt) should pay royalties on all writing, including all books, advertisements, websites, signages, etc."

Cleopatra Egypt said...

Please note that I am an Egyptian and may be I am speaking out of nationalism? That is possible, but still not that possible.

The idea behind this law has to be completely greedily commercial, but actually long before they came up with that law, I was thinking it should have been enforced a long ago.

Nobody in the world would have the audacity to make a carbon copy of Dubai's Burj al-Arab hotel. Simply because they would be betraying the designers...

Most of the artifacts and monuments in Egypt are already on mighty Google's database. That means actually that the needs of 99% of individuals interested in Egypt are satisfied.
I guess the other 1% who wouldn't be satisfied are business-kind parties. And those should have no (big) problems to pay for what they want to profit from.

I liked so much the genuine comment that was wondering if Greece would copyright democracy. I always appreciate sarcasm so much! But for real, it's beside the point. that would be the case if Egypt would have demanded copyrights for having peace treaties between nations.

Let's face it, most of us commits a "crime" everyday, remember downloading a song that you didn't have in an album from watching a full-length movie on Youtube which was chopped off into 25 parts? Liking a girl few years ago down the street and following her just to know where she works or lives so you can track her down next day same time just to say hi?

The idea is, man-made laws are USUALLY flexible (still mostly ridiculous), and it heavily depends on the way you commit the crime and sometimes the purpose behind it.

I am sure when you try creating (oops, I mean making) full-scale replica of the G
reat Pyramid in your backyard (backyard that big would probably be a Texan backyard, kidding), nobody is going to call 911. Unless you try to make profit out of it by letting people in to "enjoy a copy of the Great Pyramid without leaving Texas!"

I completely support this law if it is made to preserve the ARTISTIC side of the monuments, not the HISTORICAL side of them.
Nice post anyway, keep moving forward.

OH MY GOODNESS what a coincidence!, this is unbelievable, the Captcha google is asking me to enter now is Hawasy (sounds to me like Hawass!!! I don't like him that much though!)

Adam, Egypt.