Academy Lecture

Copyrighting Tradition: Creativity, Authorship and Expressions of Traditional Culture

28 May 2015 from 16:00 to 17:30 hrs
Trippenhuis Building, Kloveniersburgwal 29, 1011 JV Amsterdam
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Academy Lecture by Valdimar Hafstein, Academy Visiting Professor at the Meertens Institute. Should we copyright culture? How does a traditional lullaby become a work of authorship? Who owns Cinderella? And what would the Brothers Grimm say?

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This lecture aims to shed light on the historical provenance of such Catch-22s.  While we may not resolve them, the lessons we learn from their genealogy can inform our thinking about copyright and creative agency in contemporary culture.

In 1844, Hans Christian Andersen accused the Brothers Grimm of stealing his tale ‘The Princess and the Pea’. That Andersen elsewhere attributes this tale to oral tradition (he heard it as a child) seems not to preclude it from becoming something that others could steal from him. Bizarre? Actually, it's not such an unusual story. The United Nations even has a special committee negotiating a new international convention that addresses such appropriations of traditional culture and traditional knowledge, in music, in medicine, and in visual and verbal art.

This lecture will grapple with representations of creative agency – such as authorship and tradition – that are shaped through the regime of authorship and endowed with the force of law through the regime of copyright. It will seek to understand where such representations come from. The motivation driving the research is that if we at least understand the dichotomies that shape dominant understandings of creativity, we will be better placed to undermine them, to liberate our imagination from their powerful hold, and to imagine creative agency in alternative terms. In a digital age, such acts of liberation and imagination are badly needed; creativity is still enclosed in categories from another era and bogged down by the weight of nineteenth-century romantic ideals about the author.