Mexico fights cultural appropriation with new intellectual property law

The Mexican Senate unanimously approved a federal law aimed at protecting the cultural heritage of indigenous and Afro-Mexican communities, an attempt to combat cultural appropriation and plagiarism of the creations and other artistic expressions of indigenous communities.

The law provides for penalties ranging from financial fines to prison terms for those who reproduce, copy, imitate or appropriate the cultural heritage of Mexican communities without proper authorization.

“This law represents a big effort on the part of the Mexican government and should be replicated in other countries,” said Begoña Cancino, head of intellectual property practice and administrative litigation at Creel, García-Cuéllar, Aiza y Enriquez, a leading business law firm in Mexico.

Indigenous artisans in Mexico spend decades perfecting their crafts and teaching future generations to recreate their communities’ iconic designs for pottery, carpentry, textiles, and other mediums. Lawmakers say these same artisans often receive a ridiculous price when they sell a finished part that required many hours of manual labor.

The embroideries and textile patterns of Mexican communities have been imitated by many fashion houses over the years, with Mexican authorities calling out fast fashion maker Zara, upscale designer Louis Vuitton and many others for cultural appropriation. .

While the fashion industry claims to pay homage, Mexican authorities say designers plagiarize and steal from often impoverished artisans.

In 2019, Mexican Culture Minister Alejandra Frausto, who is also a lawyer, took the unusual step of sending a letter of complaint to Venezuelan-born couture designer Carolina Herrera about a collection influenced in part by traditional Mexican textile patterns.

Herrera has described its Resort 2020 collection as being inspired by a “Latin holidays” – with creative director Wes Gordon defending the collection as a “tribute to the richness of Mexican culture”.

The following year, Mexico amended its copyright law to recognize indigenous communities as owners of intellectual property rights of collective works derived from popular culture or expressions with traditional elements of indigenous communities, including the right to object to modifications and unauthorized use.

With the latest legislation, adopted on November 30, Cancino says there will now be a legal framework with a register to identify cultural expressions subject to protection, while identifying the owners of those rights and detailing the process necessary to obtain and properly document the authorization.

The Mexican Institute of Industrial Property and the Mexican Copyright Office have recently set up courses to educate artisans and indigenous communities about their intellectual property rights and how to protect them. The two authorities also offer reduced rates to help these communities register their works.

Cancino expects communities seeking to protect their intellectual property to turn to legal experts like her for pro bono consultations to navigate this new ground.

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