12 January 2010

Mexico vs. Starbucks

Here's a weird little tidbit from last week:

Starbucks Corp.'s Mexico unit says it is willing to pay for permission to sell coffee mugs featuring pre-Hispanic images, after the Mexican government notified it about potential violations of intellectual property rights.

Starbucks said Thursday it regrets any misunderstanding, and "we are willing to pay the appropriate amount for the use of these images."

Mexico's government archaeological agency says the images of the Aztec calendar stone and the Pyramid of the Moon from the pre-Aztec ruins of Teotihuacan are the intellectual property of the nation. The agency will decide how much Starbucks should pay.

Starbucks says a supplier was responsible for securing permission for the mugs, which have been temporarily withdrawn from sale. (AP, via Business Week)

Of course the monuments and artifacts in question belong to Mexico in a legal sense, but I find the idea of archaeological sites as a category of intellectual property pretty disturbing. If Mexico could license the images to Starbucks, the implication is that these things are like any other category of property, which one could buy and sell. Could countries then sell the copyrights to archaeological sites and their data, in the way that Michael Jackson or the Beatles have sold their catalogues? When does Mexico start charging licensing fees for using pictures in textbooks?

I dislike the whole concept. Considering culture strictly as property is a recipe for disaster. By the same token, however, it would be nice for countries to be able to assert their rights over heritage in their territories and ensure noncommercial uses. Seems to me we need some variant of the Creative Commons licenses for cultural property.


  1. Thought this might be up your alley:

  2. This story is quite reminiscent of another from 2007 with Zahi Hawass moving to "copyright the Pyramids" and other symbols of Egyptian heritage (read: nationalism). See this Guardian post: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2007/dec/27/egypt.artnews