Capturing Culture

"Capture culture, hog-tie it, clap your brand upon it 
and you find that the shock has killed the thing you love." 

- Elbert Hubbard

Entrepreneurship in the creative and cultural sectors is precarious. In considering various cultural markets like food, fashion, design and entertainment, it occurs to me how cultural desires drive large swaths of the global economy in ways that are challenging to calculate, and trepidatious to capitalize upon.

One such example began in 2008, when American Apparel started to use the “Navajo” name to market colorfully patterned underwear, socks and other accessories that took inspiration from the traditional weavings of this tribe. It would be hard not to admit that the content of this product is culturally derived and so the tribe sued American Apparel in 2012 for use of this name, and they reached a “supply and license” agreement in 2016. The settlement demonstrates that both a corporation and a sovereign nation saw the value of intellectual property in the Navajo name and its patterns. This example also shows that a company may stand to benefit if they outsource cultural content from an outside entities. Or they could hire at great expense a creative workforce to generate original such content from within their organization, however it would not be able to generate a historical standpoint for that content. Pendleton Woolen Mills has worked out mutual agreements with many tribes.

A Pendleton blanket we own named after Charbonneau, 
the son of Shoshone guide Sacagawea.

This need for and value of cultural content impels companies to explicitly structure and hire for creative methodology and cultural acumen within their company, or perhaps contract for external sources of content and idea generation. A pertinent list of such external sources is UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. This list of cultural heritage and their corresponding nations of origin can be seen as a menu of potentially lucrative content, and many of these items are intangible content for successful products such as Spanish flamenco, Indian yoga, Belgian beer culture and the Mediterranean diet.

Currently this list does not receive any protected status and it would be challenging to enforce such IP across borders. In 2015, a list of 12 ethical principles for safeguarding these intangible heritage were drafted by UNESCO but the language is loose and a breach of these principles does not carry any penalties.

I would predict that by the mid 21st century there will be deeper scrambles for intangible cultural heritage and that academic institutions will be drawn into this foray by international politics and the business community. I also think that such institutions will also have a hand in contributing entrepreneurial strategy for small to medium enterprises that can ethically handle the packaging of authentic culture for profit.