Monday, May 19, 2008

Reading between the lines

Article 8 of the UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity states that cultural goods and services are commodities of a unique kind:

"In the face of present-day economic and technological change, opening up vast prospects for creation and innovation, particular attention must be paid to the diversity of the supply of creative work, to due recognition of the rights of authors and artists and to the specificity of cultural goods and services which, as vectors of identity, values and meaning, must not be treated as mere commodities or consumer goods."
The casual reader might well be forgiven for wondering what the motivation might have been for this somewhat cryptic statement. The business about the "rights of artists and authors" clearly has something to do with intellectual property and copyright protection - but the article seems to be suggesting that such legal and economic considerations need to be balanced off against something else. But against what and in what way? One has the sense that a certain amount of horse-trading and compromise went into the construction of this document and that clarity may have suffered for the sake of unanimity.

I gained some insight into the underlying issues when I stumbled across the web site of the Canadian-based Coalition for cultural diversity, a coalition of canadian "cultural professionals" from the fields of publishing, film, television, music, performing arts and visual arts. Their primary mission is to defend the principle that cultural policy must not be subject to the constraints of international trade agreements. Their position paper states:
"We all remember the cultural exemption debate that peaked during the final stretch of the Uruguay Round in the Fall of 1993. At the time, the United States had applied tremendous pressure to have culture included in these negotiations, more specifically to have the GATS signatory countries agree to make trade liberalization commitments in the cultural services sector, especially the audio-visual sector (film, television, radio, music), in the same way as in other service sectors. Aware that such commitments would jeopardize many of their cultural policies, and spurred by the remarkable mobilization of the cultural sector, the majority of the member countries -- with France and Canada at the helm -- did not succumb to that pressure. Indeed, as of 1998, only 19 of the 136 WTO member-countries agreed to submit their audio-visual sector, in part or in totality, to the restrictive disciplines of the GATS."
A  useful reminder that vague blanket terms like "cultural diversity" can mean very different things in different contexts.

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