Intellectual Property and the Tibetans

The matter of Intellectual property rights is comparatively new to the Tibetan society. With the increasing exposure to the outside world there is greater awareness about the issue then it was in 1999 when I wrote the following article.

Copyrights and copy wrongs
Bhuchung K. Tsering
Tibetan Review
August 1999

In June the Voice of Tibet (VOT) aired a complaint from a member of the now defunct music group Rangzen Shonu asking why it had not sought permission for broadcasting one of the group’s songs. VOT’s response was that it had secured permission from another member of the group. While this problem may have been resolved thus, it raises an important question about intellectual property rights in the Tibetan community.

Historically, the concept of “intellectual property” appears to be non-existent in our society. The Buddhist culture which teaches individuals not to be attached to themselves, their family members or their property, seems to have made Tibetan scholars and artistes become generous when it came to the usage of their works by others. Whether it is literature, a statue, Tibetan medicine, a thanka or a song, once produced, these were made available to the general public in whatever way they needed. There was no “ownership of one’s creative work”, which is the essential definition of intellectual property.

The absence of a mass media in the Tibetan society then also helped continue this situation. Intellectual property had limited circulation and its commercial implication was not obvious, too. That was then. In the post-1959 years, as the Tibetan refugees started active interaction with the outside world, intellectual property began to feel the stress. The onset of offset printing and the discovery of audio and video cassette tape multipliers led to shrewd individuals and even public organisations taking advantage of the situation by reproducing products without due credit or compensation to the owners. Similarly, the Tibetan Medical & Astro. Institute has been troubled by the fake “precious pills” that are being sold in its name. Thus, whether it is the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts, Tibetan medicine, individual musicians or the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, everyone is feeling the pinch of copyright violation.

The situation needs to be changed. If we want to encourage Tibetan artistes and products in all fields we should see that they do not become suffocated through piracy.While part of the problem is the financial attraction for the people who indulge in the business, a more important reason is the lack of knowledge of the importance of intellectual property within the Tibetan community. We need to create greater awareness on this issue.

We should start by talking about the reason behind the need for copyright laws. Western experts on copyright say there are three basic reasons: I) to reward authors for their creative works; ii) to encourage availability of the works to the general public; iii) and to facilitate access and use of the works by the public in appropriate situations.

How can intellectual property be protected? It is not enough to print “All Rights Reserved” on a book or a “c” within a circle on video and audio tapes, or a hologram on a medicine box to be assured of protection. There needs to be a consistent assertion of rights by the producers concerned. I want to cite two personal experiences, which showed how authors could assert their rights.

When I was studying in Delhi University, the author Salman Rushdie came to give a talk. At the end of his talk, the author agreed to sign copies of his new book, Midnight’s Children (which had just been published then). As the line shortened, I could see the author refusing to sign certain books because they were pirated copies.

Another incident took place in the eighties when I volunteered to edit a journal of the Indo-Tibetan Friendship Society in Dharamsala. In the course of gathering materials for an issue, I found an interesting article by a Tibetan scholar on Indo-Tibetan ties. The scholar was residing in Dharamsala and when I approached him for permission to reprint his article, his response was negative. I, of course, felt perplexed then. On hindsight I can see that the author and Salman Rushdie were asserting their rights over their works.

Tibetan owners of creative works need to be more proactive in conveying the message of copyright to the Tibetan public. Now that there is a separate judiciary system in Dharamsala, authors need to make use of its good offices to bring greater awareness of intellectual property. The first copyright act in the world was passed in 1709 in Great Britain only after many authors complained about the misuse of their works. So creator of works need to take every opportunity to bring greater awareness, whether through articles in Tibetan-related journals or through legal channels.

We need to work to see that intellectual property is given its due place in the new Tibetan scheme of things.

The Four Tantras in Jerusalem

This intellectual property issue came to my mind recently when I was in Israel in connection with His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s visit. While I was taking a walk with some Israeli friends one evening in Jerusalem, I saw a store (which was being newly opened) with the name “Tibetic Health Center.” The signboard also had “the Four Tantras” and “The Essence of Nectar; the Eighth branch being the Tantra of the Secret Transmission” written in Tibetan. A telephone number, 6255515, was also given.

Obviously, it wasn’t a Tibetan who was opening this centre. Is the centre selling any Tibetan medical products in violation of intellectual property rights? I wonder!

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