CAIRO: Ancient Egyptian antiquities will soon be copyrighted. This was a short headline that caused ripples in the media and cultural circles when it first appeared just a few days before the end of last year.
The issue of copyrighting cultural property has been under discussion for more than a decade. But the decision to apply such a rule to Egyptian monuments and artifacts – everything from pyramids to scarabs – couldn’t simply pass as a move aimed at protecting intellectual property.
“The copyright law relating to antiquities comes at a time when it is so badly needed to enforce attempts aimed at preservation and documentation, Halim Nour El Din, professor of archaeology and former director of the Supreme Council of Antiquities.
The main thrust of the law, which is still undergoing debate and drafting in the People s Assembly, is thought to apply to exact full-scale replicas of monuments. However, there seems the possibility that it will apply also to the manufacture and sale of tourist trinkets based on the nation s precious antiquities.
Alaa Mahrous, of the underwater archaeology department, Alexandria, spoke of the necessity of enforcing the law to curb semi- rather than exact imitations. “Distorted imitations are even more dangerous. You never know. Over the years they can pass as original, remarked Mahrous.
However, there are other concerns. China is thriving on trading in Egyptian souvenirs manufactured in the country, an industry worth millions. Some nations have locally reproduced exact copies of some of the Egyptian sites to promote them as national tourist attractions, and these are generating profit from which Egypt doesn’t benefit.
Dr Abir Anany, a senior tourist guide, regretted the fact that the China-made Egyptian souvenirs are filling a gap left by the Egyptian market. “These souvenirs are an essential part of any tourist’s shopping spree. We have some made in Egypt but those are insufficient and expensive. One item could originally cost LE 5 and is sold for LE 100. We are copyrighting these items simply because we have failed to stand up against Chinese competition.
Critics, therefore, argue whether the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) decision has been motivated by the keenness to preserve cultural heritage or the desire to share the profit of imitators.
It is difficult to argue strongly for one side against the other. Indeed, the two issues of cultural protection and financial gains are deeply entwined. According to intellectual property laws, art works are not protected by copyright 50 years after their creation.
But should the law be applied differently to the heritage of nations?
The issue of copyrighting Egyptian antiquities has alerted other nations more than ever before to the importance of what might happen if they don t pay more attention.
In its New Year issue, the French women s magazine Marie Claire carried a detailed feature on a replica of part of Paris in China. The replica came complete with a model of the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe and Avenue Champs-Élysées. The magazine reported that Venice, Zurich and other European cities frequented mostly by tourists were underway.
When asked if they were concerned about copyright, the Chinese shot back inquiring sarcastically if anyone had ever asked the French or British colonizers about copyrights when they invaded their nation, looted their antiquities and shipped them to their museums.
Obviously, it is also a conflict of civilizations, the freshest memory of which is the destiny of some of the Iraqi antiquities that have undergone sabotage in the wake of the American invasion in 2003.
The debate also involves areas that relate to customs and folklore. A few years ago, a conference organized by the Sharjah Cultural Directorate, UAE, drew attention to the importance of documenting Arab heritage, with a focus on curbing the Israeli theft of Palestinian culture.
After many years of occupation, dishes like taboula , metabel , and falfel have passed in Europe as Israeli delicacies and the dabka dance as part of Jewish folklore. Israeli tour guides in Jerusalem would tell non-Muslim visitors that Al Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock mosques were built by Jewish artisans.
The gravity of the issue relating to such thefts has fuelled the region-wide move to document heritage – a subject that seemingly takes a different dimension from ordinary intellectual copyright, although it partakes of it.
While the former relates more to an individual or group’s right to protection in the market economy, the latter bears more on the future and identity of nations.
But can antiquities be copyrighted in the same way as books, songs, films and other intellectual creations?
“Heritage is definitely part and parcel of the intellectual property rights, noted Nour El Din.
“Many seminars have been organized at Cairo University and elsewhere on the necessity of documenting Arab heritage, so that it would be preserved against plunder and loss, the professor told Daily News Egypt.
Dr Ibrahim Darwish, director of the Alexandria Museums said: “The law already exists and can’t be ignored. The problem, however, relates more to implementation, especially in Egypt and other Third-World countries. Any new copyright law would only stress a law that’s already in place.
He added, “In a country like Egypt we tend to ignore the law and give others the chance to justify their attempt to encroach on our specialties.
But some argue how the law can be enforced beyond Egyptian territory, especially amid the widespread and decades-old circulation of Egyptian antiquities.
Ahmed El Ashmawi, legal consultant at the SCA and author of the new legislation, told National Geographic News that Egypt could enforce the law in other countries through diplomatic pressure, or by barring those who violate the law from entering Egypt or selling their goods there.
“It might prove difficult at the beginning, but many are not usually aware that, when introduced, the new copyright law will be enforced by international organizations like the UNESCO, ICOM and Unit Des Lois, all of which are empowered to prosecute those who make exact copies of the monuments, Nour El Din explained.
Darwish pointed out that the law should take force because all of our antiquities are locally registered. “This is more important. For when you start a related case you’re first asked if the piece is registered in your territories, he said.
Tour guides, who believe they are closer to the practical aspect of the issue, say that the law is likely to create a new kind of problem for Egypt. Bassam El Shammaa, a senior tourist guide said, “I believe it s important to safeguard our sizeable monuments against imitation and distortion. But we should have given it a thought before drafting such a law; we will endanger Chinese products that help promote our tourism industry and fill the racks of souvenir shops in Khan El Khalili and elsewhere.
“Where’s the alternative once this ban is applied? Also, other nations would react by taking strict measures against Egyptians copying brand sports wear, fashion and other products. Have we prepared ourselves for that?
El Shammaa said that we can’t ignore the business aspect that motivated the law.
“Instead of banning the Chinese products, why don’t we invite Chinese businessmen to set up their souvenir workshops locally against a worthwhile business deal?
“Think about the consequences of the ban: our souvenir shops will find little to display once we stop importing the Chinese pieces, he said. Copyrighting Pharaonic antiquities will remain a true challenge. But the problem is not with the law itself. It is the Egyptomania that many believe can’t be dampened by a sole decision.
Egypt and the rest of the region are establishing their own documentation and preservation centers in what is argued to be preparation for a battle between civilizations.