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New Zealand Heritage Sold

We are in danger of losing control of our culture.

by Professor Hermann A Maurer, Dr Lalita Rajasingham, and Professor John Tiffin

The huge land sales and subsequent cultural losses of last century may be dwarfed by the losses that are possible through new applications of developing technology. Can New Zealand's cultural heritage be protected from electronic enclosures?

To the nomads of Africa, the Amerindians of North and South America and the herdsman of the Great Steppes, land was something natural and universal like the air or the sea. They did not think of it in terms of property and since there was so much of it, they took little notice when the first fences began to appear. Over time, however, they found themselves hedged in and that the land belonged to someone else.

There is a possibility that something similar is happening today, where something we all take for granted could become someone else's property. We are talking about the cultural heritage of New Zealand.

Money for Nothing?

Imagine a beautiful marae and a bunch of enthusiastic visitors from Japan, Britain or Germany. One of them approaches the kaumatua with a proposition.

We will give you twenty five thousand dollars for the electronic rights to the marae. Electronic rights? Yes, it just means we take some pictures of the marae and we have the rights to store them and transmit them, so if anybody wants a picture of the marae we can let them have it. Does this give you any rights over the marae itself? Does this mean that the marae belongs to you in any way? No, no, nothing to do with the marae itself, all we want are the rights to use pictures of the marae electronically. Oh yes, and if we can have the electronic rights to your waiata, we will double the price -- make it fifty thousand dollars.

Nobody at the marae minds people taking a few photographs or videoing performances. Besides, fifty thousand dollars is a lot of money. There are the much needed repairs and some new furniture for the kohanga reo would be nice. So why not?

This is just a New Zealand setting for something which has already happened in Europe on a large scale. The implications have been of sufficient concern that calls have been made for governments to take protective legislative action.

Here is the scenario which has tempted dozen of museums and gallery directors all over the world:

You have such a nice collection of exhibits. You know, the public is not sufficiently aware of what you have. We will computerize all your valuable exhibits, we will do all the work, no trouble for you, you just give us all electronic rights, nothing else. We will use the computerized versions of your exhibits in various multi-media presentations -- this is how we make our money. We are business people, after all, ha, ha.

All those multi-media presentations will be great for you because they're basically free advertising for your collections. And for the trouble of putting up with our photographers and movie people, we'll pay you $50,000. How does this sound?

Many owners of galleries and museums have greeted this sort of proposal with delight and have been eager to help. They did not realize that such a one-time exclusive sale is much like selling Manhattan Island for three pounds of glass beads, or selling an oil well without asking for royalties on the oil pumped.

Giving exclusive rights away is like selling property. For a one-time fee, all future revenues are forfeited, not forgetting that property values are going to skyrocket within the next few years due to new information and communication technologies.

Selling the Hermitage

The scenario is not fiction -- it has happened already many times and even on a grand scale. Recently a consortium of companies did exactly that with St Petersburg's famous Hermitage museum, one of the world's largest art collections, second only to that of the Louvre in Paris. They bought the electronic rights for a few million dollars.

In today's hard-pressed Russia it seemed like an extraordinary windfall to the museum. What it means, however, is that from now on, if anyone wants to publish, or portray on television or on video any of the images in that museum, they will first have to negotiate with that company and pay their price. This is one of the great art collections of the world and closing it off in this manner is akin to putting a fence around something the size of Texas. People can, of course, visit the art gallery and look at the pictures, but the gallery itself can never again store or transmit electronic images of its pictures.

Just what does this mean?

Around the world, societies like ourselves are in the process of transition from being industrial societies to becoming information societies. The factories of an information society are computers and they are served by what US Vice-President Al Gore has called the "superhighways" of information. The railways of the information society are fibre-optic cables, the steamship routes are satellites. What moves along these information highways and is processed in the computers is information.

We are on the edge of an information boom that will be far greater than the one that came with radio in the 1920s and with television in the 1950s. Information will be piped into our homes like electricity is at the moment. We will have extraordinary access to information.

It will be possible to walk through the great art gallery of St Petersburg on high-definition television -- for whatever price charged by the company who owns the rights. We may be able to pull out of our compact disk library a disk of the Hermitage's collections, bought courtesy of the people who own the electronic rights to it. Art colleges around the world will want to use instructional materials that use high-definition electronic formats, and of course they will want access to one of the world's great collections of art.

Growing in Value

As the years roll by and the information society spreads and the number of people wanting to refer to the Hermitage's artworks grows, so too will the value of the electronic rights to that art collection. But this is only a beginning. Think ahead 10 or 15 years, when virtual reality technology has matured to provide everyone with the chance to experience the "reality" of the collection through an electronically controlled excursion.

You want to visit the Hermitage? Slip on your VR helmet and get on your VR scooter and you are there, thanks to some software you bought from those thoughtful people who purchased the rights so many years before. Now extend your imagination 50 to 100 years in the future, when nano-technology has arrived and molecular computers can instruct minute molecular assemblers to build atom by atom. In this way, replicas of the St Petersburg art galleries, accurate to the last speck of dust on each picture, can be built anywhere -- for a fee to the company that holds the rights.

The Hermitage example is far from being an isolated case. The rights to hundreds of films of the one-time famous Schascha Films of Austria were bought for a trifling $100,000, and the films are now starting to appear on nostalgia movie channels all over Europe. Big art museums can no longer produce their own picture postcards, since they have sold -- once and for all -- the rights to someone else. Both museums and the general public suffer: the first, because they have no further income; the second because lack of competition drives up prices. We do not call for restricting all sales of electronic rights, but the sale of exclusive electronic rights is fraught with as many problems as selling the original.

As much as we would not permit the big waka at Waitangi to be sold to a faceless foreign group, we should not allow the exclusive electronic rights to that canoe to be given away. Imagine at some stage in the future, Kiwis wanting to create a multi-media production showing our country and we can't -- or only at exorbitant cost -- since the electronic rights to much of our culture do not belong to us any more.

At some point in the near future, if it has not already happened, someone is going to turn up at our museums and art galleries, the historical collections and the places where in many shapes and forms, in pot, in cloth, in fabric, in film and in wood, the artists of New Zealand have expressed themselves and yes, they will turn up at a marae and wherever Maori heritage is expressed in stone, wood and bone and dance and song, and say "have I got a deal for you!"

We have sold off much of New Zealand already. So what will we do when the traders of the information age come knocking with their cheque books open? We have great beauty and art in Aotearoa and these are the golden nuggets of the information age. There is nothing wrong with buying and selling copies of culture, as long as the rights to the original are retained. But the process is a dangerous one and the small print difficult to read.

As a nation we are naive in the ways of the new trade. Think of all those forms that people in New Zealand happily fill in for bank loans, shopping cards and cards labelled "privileged customers". We actually give away information about ourselves that is used to create databases that are then sold and traded; data that is slowly being matched to build profiles of us and our habits that are available to commercial organisations, and we do not even know about it.

Legislation Needed

It is one thing to give away information about ourselves as individuals. It is quite another, however, to sell for a song the cultural heritage of a nation.

Hone Heke kept cutting down flag poles because he understood that they signified the capture of a country. Let us hope that the keepers of our museums and art galleries and libraries and film archives see a similar danger and are prepared to prevent the electronic capture of our cultural heritage.

However, we believe this is too much to hope for. Money is sometimes just too persuasive. It is necessary that the government acts by making sure that exclusive electronic rights of works of art and antiquity are protected in the same way as the pieces themselves.

Hermann Maurer works in the Hypermedia Unit at Auckland University's Computer Science Department. Professor Maurer is also with the Institute for Information Processing and Computer Supported New Media at Graz University of Technology in Austria.
Dr Lalita Rajasingham is chairperson of the Department of Communications Studies at Victoria University.
Professor John Tiffin holds the David Beattie Chair of Communications.