Is international copyright law about to change? Can Cairo copyright the Sphinx? Will Abu Simbel-snapping tourists be clapped in irons? Or is it a case of, ‘kahmoun, you must be joking? Emily Devlin sends this dispatch from north of the Nile Delta.
Topic: Intellectual Property
Who: Egypt Supreme Council of Antiquities
When: December 2007
Law stated as at: 31 January 2008
On Christmas Day 2007 the head of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, Zahi Hawass announced a controversial new plan to introduce a new law to "completely prohibit the duplication of historic Egyptian monuments". According to Mr Hawass "it is Egypt's right to be the only copyright owner for these monuments in order to benefit financially so we can restore, preserve and protect Egyptian monuments".
Reports suggest that anyone seeking to make an exact replica of a "copyrighted" pharaonic artefact will need to seek permission from and pay a fee to the Supreme Council of Antiquities. The resulting revenue will be used to pay for the upkeep of the country's iconic historic monuments, including the Great Pyramid at Giza, the Sphinx and the city of Luxor.
It is not clear what kind of replicas will be covered by this new law, although Mr Hawass has confirmed that local and international artists will still be allowed to profit from drawings and other reproductions they have made of pharaonic and other Egyptian monuments, provided that "exact copies" are not made. The exactness of the replicas apparently extends to scale – meaning someone will have to build a full sized copy of the giant pyramid, for example, for it to violate the proposed law, something that seems highly unlikely.
Snap-happy tourists can therefore breathe a sigh of relief that their cameras will not be seized at Cairo Airport. One US business in particular that might have been slightly anxious is, apparently, safe. The Luxor hotel in Las Vegas is, according to Mr Hawass, "not an exact copy of a pharaonic monument despite the fact it's in the shape of a pyramid". Mr Hawass helpfully explained that the Luxor's glitzy interior was entirely different from an ancient Egyptian setting.
Why this matters:
This is a somewhat perplexing development in the field of international copyright law. It is unclear exactly what the Supreme Council of Antiquities is seeking to prevent and how it proposes to enforce this new law, particularly outside Egypt.
The basis upon which Egypt is seeking to claim this "copyright" around the world is rather opaque, not least because the authors of the works in question have been dead for some 4000 years. According to reports, Egyptian IP experts are working together with UNESCO to persuade bodies such as WIPO that nations have the right to defend their folklore and heritage from being taken advantage of internationally.
If the protection of heritage is Egypt's aim then there are aspects of the proposed law that seem eminently sensible. For example, it is suggested that foreign archaeologists will no longer be permitted to take antiquities out of Egypt (previously they were allowed to take 10% of finds out of the country). However, a proposal that antiquities smugglers face a mandatory life sentence seems a little draconian.
Copyright lawyers will await developments with interest. A story that, on its face, seems somewhat bizarre, may yet provoke a dramatic (and unexpected) development in the field of international copyright.