Intellectual Property Law and the Ethics of Imitation in Guatemala

By Thomas, Kedron | Anthropological Quarterly, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Intellectual Property Law and the Ethics of Imitation in Guatemala


Thomas, Kedron, Anthropological Quarterly


Abstract

This article examines the cultural and moral context of trademark piracy in Guatemala. In particular, I analyze what accusations of envy among smallscale Maya garment manufacturers who participate in trademark piracy reveal about two aspects of the social field: first, the changing economic and cultural conditions following waves of neoliberal reform including the criminalization of piracy; and, second, the nonlinear reproduction of forms of moral and legal reckoning at the margins of the global economy. I examine how practices of copying and imitation among manufacturers and competitive behavior more generally are evaluated locally in light of kin relations that promote the sharing of knowledge and resources within a somewhat loose property regime and given ideologies of race and nation that encourage class-based solidarity among Maya people. I find that the normative models and business practices evident among these manufacturers parochialize official portraits of progress, business ethics, and development promoted in neoliberal policy agendas and international law. [Keywords: Intellectual property, brands, piracy, legal pluralism, apparel industry, Guatemala]

Guillermo Ordóñez owns a garment workshop in Tecpán, a town on the Pan-American Highway in Guatemala's central highlands. Guillermo, a 40-year-old Kaqchikel Maya man, specializes in youth sweaters and sweatshirts featuring the logos of globally-popular fashion brands such as Abercrombie & Fitch and Hollister. Typical of this cottage industry, his business occupies a cinder-block room built onto the back of his family's house. Teenage boys ride their bikes from the outskirts of town or nearby hamlets each day to operate the half-dozen Juki sewing machines imported from Japan and two Universal knitting machines from Germany, shouting to one another in Kaqchikel, the local indigenous language, over the mechanical noise. Barely heard, the radio plays bachata or reggaeton music, maybe an Evangelical sermon.

As one workday ends, Guillermo loads his Mazda microbus with garbage bags full of finished garments, carefully folded, stacked, and bundled by the dozen. He leaves at four the next morning for San Francisco El Alto, a town in the Western highlands with a vibrant wholesale garment market. Dozens of other producers from Tecpán make the same trip each week. Guillermo and I sit in his kitchen for a cup of coffee, and he complains about rising levels of competition among these producers over styles and pricing, competition that he says is unfair and disrespectful to one's neighbors. "The apparel business has made people in Tecpán muy individualistas. People are envious and only watch out for themselves," he says. "So, you have to watch out for yourself." He contrasts Tecpán with neighboring towns-San Juan Comalapa's artisanal traditions in weaving and painting, Patzicia's broader agricultural base-whose residents have apparently been able to maintain a sturdier sense of cooperation and solidarity. In giving this analysis, he is clearly nostalgic about what he feels has been lost in Tecpán, where envy and individualism seem to be thriving.

In this article, I draw on 16 months of ethnographic research in Tecpán to examine what garment manufacturers such as Guillermo mean when they commonly say that people have become envious and individualist.1 I am concerned with apprehending what June Nash (1981) calls the "ethnographic aspects of the world capitalist system." Processes of economic and legal globalization shape a changing "context of accountability" (Douglas 1992) in Tecpán's garment trade, with its differently positioned participants and its ambivalent relationships to the past and to the nation. I analyze what accusations of envy among garment manufacturers and within the wider community reveal about two aspects of the social field: first, the changing economic and social conditions in highland Guatemala following nearly four decades of armed conflict and waves of neoliberal reform and, second, the nonlinear reproduction of historical identities and forms of moral and legal reckoning at the margins of the global economy. …

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