It’s trite to say that the world is complicated. However, many of us are involved in trying to simplify much of the world’s complexities, with some success but often failing miserably. The following is just an example that arose this week.

We’ve just passed an important annual celebration in our nation’s short history as an independent entity and it tends to focus minds, often on things that were hiding in plain sight. Because of that realisation, we’re often treated to a brief period of outrage, but can’t say with hands on heart that anything will change and the cause of our ire will not recur.

So, the topic is ‘appropriation‘. In its simplest form, dictionaries define it as ‘the act of taking something, usually without permission, like stealing your brother’s french fries when he is momentarily distracted. Appropriation originally referred to the taking of private property, usually by the government’. Ironically, our ire has been stirred by a private person taking something our nation (qua government) owns and taken us into the thorny forest of ‘cultural appropriation’.

So, normally, we get upset if we suspect appropriation has happened to personal property (at its worst, we suspect theft). But, we are also upset if this appears to happen to things we see as ‘national property’. Again, at its simplest, we notice it with real assets such as land or other forms of property, but also our financial wealth (eg if our national foreign exchange reserves were seized or frozen by another country or misappropriated by public officials). In such cases, it’s quite easy to understand what has been taken. But, the world has become more complicated when it comes to assets and those that are less tangible, such as intellectual property, can cause lots of problems.

Over the past few days, this latter problem has surfaced because the American superstar-musician Kanye West came to Jamaica all of a sudden and performed a ‘Sunday Service’, reflecting his new-found state of grace in enbracing Christianity. His religious conversion is his business and sharing iti with anyone else is also his business. But, in the process he appropriated some of Jamaica’s property in the form of our national symbols (coat of arms and crest of the City of Kingston) on merchadise that was being sold to commemorate the event and of course to gain revenue to more than compensate for any costs he incurred: it’s business, profit is normal. Our Minister of Culture and Entertainment has said publicly that this was done without seeking permission: “We neither received a request for nor did we give permission for our national symbols and emblems to be used for a commercial manner or otherwise. I have since requested that the items be withdrawn, and the vendor has agreed to do so,”. She has requested the merchadise be pulled. Enter stage right, on cue, Outrage and National Pride.

I wish the minister good luck. I think, for the sake of goodwill, the merchandise will be pulled, though someone will need to check on a continuous basis that this remains in effect until such time as permission is sought and granted. Whatever costs were incurred in creating the merchandise needs to be covered directly by selling it or by ekeing out profit from other sales to compensate for the loss. If reports that Mr. West’s business is valued at US$1.5 billion and hopes to soon move to $3 billion are correct, one can do the quick assessement that things that make losses are not part of the ‘master plan’. But, what if ‘good will be damned!’ steps in, despite this seeming like an un-Christian stance? What could little Jamaica do? The means to protect intellectual property nationally through the Jamaica Intellectual Property Office (JIPO) or internationally through the World International Property Office (WIPO) isn’t easy, not least because other countries stand to gain much from filching others’ property. The adage is that size doesn’t matter, but trust me, in matters like this, it matters a lot. ‘Take him to court!’, ‘Throw the book at him!’ Calm down. Where should we take him to court? Which book should we throw at him? Many Jamaicans will know that even simple matters of law and fact don’t come to quick resolution in the land of wood and water. In fact, our motto could be changed to ‘Justice delayed is justice denied’; that’s a bit harsh, perhaps, but enough cases have languished for one to say that it’s not too far from the truth.

So, I will watch from my little perch to see where the exhortations and pleadings go. I’m not a cynic, but a realist, and being an economist my vision of the future must be based on prudent assumptions. But I don’t see any major win coming our way, though I am happy to be proved wrong.

I haven’t shown any clear images of the offending merchandise out of a sense of (too much?) caution that doing so would also be a kind of infringement.

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Sunday Service Concert at Emancipation Park, October 18, 2019 (photo credit: Buzz Caribbean)

But, keen people can see more precisely for themselves what is at stake by searching the Internet.

In all this, I could add the somewhat obvious points about what happens when: (1) things are done in haste; (2) negotiations are between unequal parties; (3) talk is cheap and actions don’t stand up as tall as words (how long has the matter of protecting national property rights been on some ‘back burner’); or more. But, let’s leave those considerations for another time, eh. 🙂