Thursday, March 29, 2012

Mardi Gras Indians Battle with Copyrights

An issue that interested me first in the book, “Authentic New Orleans,” which I read for my book report, was the culture of Mardi Gras Indians. Even after our readings in class on the subject, I still had questions. So naturally, I turned to the internet, and found an article in the NY Times about a recent attempt by Mardi Gras Indians across the 30 tribes found in New Orleans to copyright the designs for their suits, thus ensuring that they would see the benefit of sales for things like art prints, calendars, and tourism ads that featured the suits they work so hard on.
The legal issues surrounding this type of copyright infringement are many: high fashion cannot be copyrighted because it is functional, not art, but what real functional purpose do these suits serve? Are these suits clothes or are they sculpture? How would one go about preventing copyright infringement without prohibiting any photography of the suits? It became more obvious to me why someone would seek monetary benefit from these suits because of this article as well: each individual suit costs upwards of $6,000-$10,000. 
Even though the article suggested that the profits from these copyrights would be used to offset the costs of tribal live, as members of Indian tribes traditionally come from economically marginalized communities and in times past the suits were burned after their three yearly appearances during the season, it seems Indians would profit more from not making such elaborate suits in the first place! But as the Indians make clear in the article, it’s not about the money and I’m sure the communal and cultural value of the tribes goes far beyond any savings from not making the suits or profits from copyrighted sales.
All in all the article was not hopeful for the outcome of the copyright campaign, but it does not look like a little bump like intellectual property theft is going to keep the tribes from celebrating Mardi Gras in their usual elaborate way.

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