Boasian Ethnography and Contemporary Intellectual Property Debates1

By Jackson, Jason Baird | Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, March 2010 | Go to article overview

Boasian Ethnography and Contemporary Intellectual Property Debates1


Jackson, Jason Baird, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society


IT IS AN EXTRAORDINARY HONOR to have been given this opportunity to address the members of the American Philosophical Society, a body that has directly supported my research in crucial ways since the earliest days of my career. The honor is doubled in this context, in which we are reflecting upon the legacy of Franz Boas. As an anthropologist and folklorist I endeavor to work in a tradition that is a direct extension of Boas's foundational accomplishments and I have always felt a deep sense of appreciation for the four remarkable scholars who connect me, via student-adviser ties, directly back to Boas. I want to thank Professor Greenhouse and the Society's leadership for this chance to reflect on contemporary problems of wide concern in light of the work of Boas and his students and of my own experiences as a field ethnographer who has worked in consultation with the Native American peoples of Eastern Oklahoma since 1993.

Around the world, we live in an era dominated by intellectual property concepts of a distinctive, and increasingly powerful, sort. The United States government, in alignment with the interests of multinational corporations, is at the forefront of a global effort to formally establish, expand, and synchronize laws governing such intellectual property rights as patent, copyright, and trademark protection. For international bodies such as the World Intellectual Property Organization, the worldwide extension and harmonization of Western intellectual property systems is understood in strictly positive terms as a means of promoting economic and political "development." But this view is widely contested in a dizzying array of venues.

In reference to the increasingly digital culture of the global North, one of your newest members, Lawrence Lessig, has been at the forefront of efforts to both understand and mitigate the consequences of such transformations, particularly the enclosure of the public domain by an ever-expanding realm of copyright and so-called "digital rights management" technologies. The copyleft movement, centered on new legal tools such as Creative Commons licenses, represents a growing alliance of diverse individuals and groups, from open source computer programmers to collage artists, hip hop musicians, and advocates for open access publication of scholarly research.2

These issues have a particular appearance as they are viewed from the vantage point of the legal department of a major record label or from the dorm room of the college freshman engaged busily but illegally in downloading pop songs. They look and feel different, again, from the perspective of the French or California vintner battling over whether it is, or is not, Champagne if it is produced outside of France's Champagne region. Such geographical indicators or regional appellations are a form of intangible property that few of us gave much thought to until they, in relatively recent times, became the center of loud, newsworthy regional and international battles.

Then there are ways that intellectual property contests have been emergent in the developing, third, and fourth worlds. Artists from Aboriginal Australian communities seek to stop overseas firms from massproducing consumer goods featuring sacred imagery. Indian farmers fight the patenting of Basmati rice by a U.S. -based agribusiness. A diverse array of indigenous and non-indigenous actors weigh in on the worldwide project of pharmaceutical bioprospecting/biopiracy. Global open source yoga advocates go to court to battle the enclosure of, and commodification of, yoga techniques by a superstar California guru. Michael E Brown and others of my colleagues have been vigorously tracking and interpreting such conflicts for much of the past decade.3

The shorthand labels with which we try to sort such issues are evocative if a bit dizzying: pharmaceutical bioprospecting, agricultural biopiracy, traditional knowledge prior art databases, open source yoga, the copyleft movement, geographic indicators, open data, digital rights management, and terminator seeds. …

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