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Folklife at the International Level: World Intellectual Property Day

The following is a guest post by AFC Folklife Specialist Michelle Stefano.  

The WIPO Headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.  The campus comprises the PCT Building (left), the George Bodenhausen buildings (center), the Main Building (right), the New Building (right of center), and the Conference Hall (between Main and New buildings). Copyright: WIPO. Photo: Emmanuel Berrod. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 IGO License.

I recently began researching the history of the American Folklife Center’s engagement with the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and its efforts in protecting intellectual property (IP) and promoting its importance at international and national levels. Over the past 15 years, AFC directors and staff have served on the U.S. delegation to WIPO’s Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore, providing guidance on issues relating to “traditional cultural expressions,” or “expressions of folklore,” as classified by the international organization. This is the first in a series of posts about WIPO, the AFC’s contributions to its Intergovernmental Committee meetings and related projects, as well as other global efforts in safeguarding living cultural heritage. What better day to begin than on April 26th: World Intellectual Property Day?

World Intellectual Property Day is celebrated each April 26th since 2001, as agreed upon by the member states of WIPO, a self-funded agency of the United Nations system that was created through the 1967 WIPO Convention, which entered into force on April 26th, 1970. World Intellectual Property Day functions to raise global awareness of intellectual property (IP) rights, such as copyrights, patents, and trademarks, and how they serve to protect and foster creativity and innovation. Indeed, this year’s theme, “Innovation – Improving Lives,” brings attention to how IP rights benefit innovators and society in general. WIPO’s Director General, Francis Gurry, explains:

Francis Gurry is responsible for the overall leadership of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). He has led the Organization since October 1, 2008, and was reappointed in May 2014 for a second term, which runs through September 2020. This photo by Emmanuel Berrod was shared to Flickr by WIPO with a creative commons license.

Intellectual property is a crucial part of a successful innovation system. It provides a return for those who take the risk to introduce the “new” – in terms of products and services – into the economy. It provides a framework for the rather difficult and challenging journey that any idea has to undertake before becoming a commercially available product or service.

Events are being held worldwide which feature seminars and workshops for organizations and individuals on IP protection and related resources in a variety of fields. In partnership with the Copyright Alliance, the U.S Copyright Office here at the Library of Congress is hosting a panel discussion on how recording technology can be viewed as a tool for creativity with respect to music.

WIPO’s mission is “to lead the development of a balanced and effective international intellectual property (IP) system that enables innovation and creativity for the benefit of all,” through a series of conventions, recommendations, and work with pre-existing legal systems of its 189 Member States, among other methods. Nonetheless, the notion of striking a balance is critical: as IP refers to creations of the mind, such as literary works and inventions, how can its creators be legally recognized and protected, as well as financially compensated, while also allowing for such works to be used by others for the sake of fostering creativity and continued innovation?

This is a particularly complex issue when it comes to traditional cultural expressions (TCEs), an area of IP to which WIPO has devoted considerable attention in recent decades. TCEs, or living traditions, are collectively expressed, passed on, and changed, as mutability is a hallmark of living cultural heritage.  They also often lack a set ‘creator’ or ‘author’ to whom copyright protection, for example, could be granted. Because of this, certain TCEs can be appropriated by others, and even commodified for financial gain, an all too common practice throughout the world. Moreover, cultural communities who strive to legally protect their TCEs can encounter significant challenges with their national legal frameworks, which may lack the means for granting such protection. These issues will be explored further in the next installment of the Folklife at the International Level series, so stay tuned!