Copyrighting Tradition in the Internet Age: Creativity, Authorship and Folklore

Valdimar Tr. Hafstein

President of the Société Internationale d’Ethnologie et de Folklore (SIEF)

Senior Lecturer of Folklore and Ethnology, University of Iceland

 Man with scarf smiling

Introduced by Principal Sir Ian Diamond

Thursday 10 November 2016 at 6:30pm

King's College Conference Centre

University of Aberdeen

followed by a reception featuring North-east Produce  


Should we copyright culture? How can one compose a one-hundred-year-old traditional lullaby? Who owns Cinderella? And what would the Brothers Grimm say?

What is the historical provenance of such Catch-22s?  While we may not resolve them in this talk, the lessons we learn from picking them apart can inform our thinking about creativity and agency in contemporary culture.

In 1844, Hans Christian Andersen accused the Brothers Grimm of stealing his tale ‘The Princess and the Pea’. That Andersen elsewhere attributes this tale to oral tradition (he heard it as a child) seems not to preclude it from becoming something that others could steal from him. Bizarre?

Actually, it's not such an unusual story and the United Nations even has a special committee negotiating a new international convention that addresses such appropriations of traditional culture and traditional knowledge, in music, in medicine, and in visual and verbal art.

Beginning with the paradoxical case of a traditional lullaby that acquired a composer late in its life and ‘fell into’ copyright, this talk grapples with representations of creative agency – such as authorship and tradition – that are endowed with the force of law through the copyright regime.

My motivation is to understand the dichotomies that shape understandings of creativity so that we will be better placed to undermine them, to liberate our imagination from their powerful hold, and to imagine creativity in alternative terms.

In a digital age, such acts of liberation and imagination are badly needed; creativity is still enclosed in categories from another era and bogged down by the weight of nineteenth-century romantic ideals about the author.

Valdimar Tr. Hafstein is a Professor in the Department of Ethnology, Folklore, and Museum Studies at the University of Iceland. He completed his PhD at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2004. He has published a number of articles and edited volumes on folklore, intangible heritage, international heritage politics, cultural property, and copyright in traditional knowledge. His work has been translated into French, Italian, Portuguese, Croatian, and Danish. Valdimar is president of the International Society for Ethnology and Folklore (SIEF) and a former chair of the Icelandic Commission for UNESCO.

The David Buchan Lecture was launched in 2015 to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the founding of the Elphinstone Institute. The lecture is in memory of the influential ballad and contemporary legend scholar who was also the Institute's first appointed director. This annual event places Ethnology and Folklore firmly in the university calendar and appeals to a wide audience across the university as well as to the general public.