Whose Public Domain, Exactly?

Triad of Memphis (Ptah, Skhemet, Nefretum), New Kingdom, Pink Granite Stone
Triad of Memphis (Ptah, Skhemet, Nefretum), New Kingdom, Pink Granite Stone (Photo Credit: Katy Dickinson)

Today was full. I saw the statues at Memphis and Sakura, the Pyramids, the Sphinx, and about half a dozen bustling suburbs of Cairo on the way. Able to draw only superficial observations throughout the day, I was haunted by a question: whose public domain do these statues, temples of forgotten kings, and pyramids of long-shifted civilizations belong to?

When I write about the public domain I am usually dealing exclusively with intellectual property: things that can be patented or copyrighted; ideas, designs and systems. But as became obvious after hearing story after story of the destruction tomb raiders wrought on this country (and visiting tombs scraped bare in the 1800s for Europe’s auction houses), there have been times when people thought physical representations of history were also in the public domain, and treated them as such*.

While individual appropriation of the public domain is sketchy when it’s the beard of the Sphinx, that is exactly what I am advocating when I dedicate my own work to the public domain. I am giving individuals the right to take from what was my intellectual property and now is common property, and do with it what they will (as long as they source me).

So, who owns the symbols of mankind’s history? The British Museum believes it has a right to the Sphinx’s beard because the ruler of Egypt at the time they took it said they could have it. Does that mean it is ok when the Taliban, the rulers of Afghanistan at the time, dynamited the Buddhas of Bamyan? If artifacts belong to a people, do their rulers have an equal right to preserve or destroy them? If not, who chooses? What about when the government says preserving artifacts is hurting the people who live around them? Who has a right to the symbols of human history?

Do people from other nations have a right to them? How is that right exercised, administered? How can we prevent the tragedy of the commons when, unlike intellectual property, the common property in question is destroyed through over use?

The public domain gets a lot more complicated when the items in question are non-duplicable. Those who demand we see intellectual property in exactly the same terms as physical property would do well to remember that.

*It’s the tragedy of the commons, Pharoh style.

Inspirational Quote:

History is the present. That’s why every generation writes it anew. But what most people think of as history is its end product, myth.”–E. L. Doctorow

1 Comment

  1. Excellent questions! which are wrestled with constantly by all creators and groups like Lawyers for the Arts which constantly battle on behalf of artists, writers and all creators to define. When I was studying Art Law I was startled to read that Mexico had decided that all art, cultural and historic objects and creations belonged to the State and could not be given, bought, etc. to anyone to take from the country – so all stealing from the tombs and pyramids of Mexico was stopped. Most of what you now see in U.S. and other museums is stolen.

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