Traditional Cultural Expression Conference

November 13, 2008

Wend Wendland of WIPO It doesn’t take long before a dinner table conversation about “traditional cultural expression” gets into some really heavy stuff. That’s what happened last night, November 12, when I sat at the table in Washington, D.C., with Wend Wendland, head of the Traditional Creativity, Cultural Expressions, and Cultural Heritage Section of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), who’d come all the way from Geneva to deliver the keynote address at a small invitational conference sponsored by the Office for Information Technology Policy of ALA’s Washington Office. Before you could say “copyright,” we’d leaped from folk art to questions about who owns the rights to ancient human remains and to a definition of “genetic resources” (biological material that contains units of heredity). I wondered, can this group of about 50 professionals (much less the world), ever reach agreement about what constitutes offensive, much less who has the right to prohibit that which offends. These decisions are up to individual nations, Wendland said, because WIPO, of course, has no legal jurisdiction. It can only frame the issues and try to bring countries to consensus. Carrie Russell, of the ALA Washington Office, pointed out that Digital Millennial Copyright Act wasn’t getting anywhere in the U.S.—until it went to WIPO, where it passed, she said. “Then, the U.S. was interested." The Traditional Cultural Expression Conference came out of the need to address international copyright issues, Russell said. “Our objective is to get librarians involved in WIPO." Wendland explained how collections of indigenous knowledge raise special concerns for librarians. Some groups reject the concept of public domain, he said. But librarians, archivists, and indigenous people can form partnerships, he added, that are sensitive to traditions and art forms that go back thousands of years and take into consideration where such issues as protocol, privacy, blasphemy, and heresy enter the discussion. Today the real discussion began as we moved into sessions ranging from “The Nature of Traditional Cultural Expression” to “Challenges to Libraries and Archives in the Management of Works of Indigenous Communities.”