Saturday, February 24, 2018

New cultural economic order


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A big lagniappe of Carnival 2013 was the duel over rights in which value creators squared off against value appropriators.

It's been a long time in coming, but in the knowledge economy of the 21st century, it was only a matter of time before the simmering pot would start boiling over.

Naturally, industries that have been built on unrestricted access and exploitation of the value created by others, are not happy. While they didn't quite articulate the point, one assumes that such industries see themselves as part of the value creation chain by virtue of their investment in promoting and commodifying creative work.

For that, they would feel entitled to a return. So, now, with the gloves effectively off, let the negotiations begin!

Hopefully, the debate that raged so uproariously leading up to Carnival has not left town with the Merry Monarch. Nor should it be left only to the lawyers representing Carnival and media interests.

In an age when the trans-global knowledge sector is a significant area of economic growth, intellectual property rights are at the top of the international agenda. For us in Trinidad and Tobago however, the issue extends far beyond the boundary of Carnival's legal quagmire to the old, enduring issue of justice.

In the 18th and 19th centuries it was sugar; in the 20th century it was oil and now in the 21st century with the dramatic monetisation of intellectual and cultural capital, the business of resource exploitation is shifting again, this time to the creative sector.

This is neither new to us nor is the term 'exploitation' necessarily a reference to something bad.

Like flies to honey, scholars from all over the world have long been coming to this part of the world, some seeking a name for themselves, others simply slaves to their fascination with the culture and society of Trinidad and Tobago. Theirs is the great reward of finding untold, undocumented and unanalysed stories, languishing in obscurity, penury and neglect,longing for a little recognition and validation. Many hardly believe their good luck when they arrive to meet open doors and open arms, many eager to unlock their experiences and archives for a few hours of company and appreciation.

This is a place where a humble academic paper might be exalted to the level of pioneering research with the overnight possibility of anointment as a world authority simply because it has entered territory not formally explored.

Everybody, but we, it seems, is fascinated with us, even if fascination sometimes veers towards impatience and even disgust.

Countless PhDs from non-Caribbean institutions have been built on the intellectual capital going to waste in this country, the fruits of their work stashed in university libraries and personal archives around the world, in every format and perhaps in every language. However patchy their quality or incomplete their understanding, the more important issue for us should, however, be our own inability- refusal even- to recognise the value existing around us.

Blinded by our colonial condition, we have lost the ability to discern the principles that order the disorder. Viewed from the landscape of the colonised imagination, our world looks degraded, even to us, its very own creations. In our panic, we cling to the external markers of colonial excellence, anxious to be recognized as different and as outsiders to the solidarity of mediocrity preaching all ah we is one with the ribald defiance of the oppressed.

But change is the air.

The global knowledge economy is not waiting for permission from us. Like heat-seeking missiles, its agents are hunting down opportunity wherever it exists, acquiring rights of exploitation on the best possible terms for itself, investing, innovating, transforming, patenting, monetising and generally building empires as they go. In the culture economy, even poverty can be a money-spinner, as Haiti so well knows.

We are not unique targets, but we have our unique value which even our business people are beginning to think might be worth an investment or two. Which brings us back to the Carnival controversies over rights which ran the gamut from broadcast rights to online rights including the casual terrain of Facebook.

But the one that might have lifted the latch on Pandora's Box of rights might be the mother who, in the midst of the season's copyright melee, demanded answers from the National Carnival Commission about its use of her son's image in what appears to be a promotion.

This is a pretty straightforward case which would simply require the child's guardian to sign a release form authorising the use of his image. The transaction may or may not involve money. But the mother's challenge raises another overlooked issue: the rights of the individual masquerader/performer.

Much was made this season about the millions collected in copyright fees by organisations representing various Carnival groups. The payments are based on structured relationships between rights owners such as Carnival bands, steelbands and various event producers, and rights acquirers like the media. The question for mas bands, in particular, is what is the relationship between the masquerader and the band owner? When people are being told that they cannot legally post their own image on Facebook, the question arises about who owns the image of the masquerader? And have we now reached the point where mas bands will have to secure a signed release from every masquerader in order to exploit their image? Further, is there scope for negotiation here that might be of material benefit to the masquerader?

When it comes to bands, should rights revenue trickle down to the individual performer? This is just one of the issues likely to come up in post-Carnival reviews. We, however, need to talk about a lot more than rights money.

As a priority, we need to review the role and impact of the State in the sponsorship of cultural events. As the holder of the purse strings, the State has both undue power and responsibility in shaping and defining the environment. Have we reached the point where State funds are actively undermining cultural development, stymieing the growth of the creative sector and distorting the country's cultural profile?

The conversation was opened up by the Ministry of the Arts' public consultation on its draft cultural policy and is likely to continue when the NCC reviews Carnival 2013 in a couple of weeks' time.

But the State cannot be the only sponsor of discussion.

It is clear that the Carnival that was built on the founding condition of resistance and subversion is changing and giving way to something new and different. But it will neither rest nor retire until it can make peace with the present.