16th apr, 2008

Ownership of Culture

I came across an article on Afro IP today which stirred my sense of justice. It seems that the British Museum is collecting royalties from pictures of ancient artefacts, in the present case a mask of Queen Idia of Benin. The mask is the war booty of a raid in 1897 and was transferred to the British Museum in the early 1900. The mask is dated from 1520 and is a part of present day Nigerias cultural heritage. In 1995 a Nigerian magazine called “Markets and Investments” wanted the mask as their logo and sought a picture from the British Museum. The museum responded with a picture with a copyright notice on it and later a request for further royalties for a 5-yr licence. Markets and Investments responded with a trademark application for the mask, and were successful.

So now Melford Ita has produced both a documentary of the case and a calculation of royalties which might have gone to the Nigerian state. Ita has calculated that the British Museum owes Nigeria 350 million pounds. A figure in the high end but never the less Ita may have a point. The British Museum is cashing in on a cultural heritage which is not theirs using copyright law. I guess that the copyright protection of a work from 1520 has expired. The British Museum will of cause enjoy neighbouring rights in relation to photos taken by them. But I can fully understand Nigerian frustration if being blocked from using a part of their history. 

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