A dress is once again in the news (prior ones being Monica’s blue dress and the “what color is this dress” internet meme). In this case it is a red dress, or more precisely a red cheongsam or traditional Chinese qipao, worn by an 18-year-old (Keziah Daum) to her prom. Daum set off a Twitter-storm after posting photos of herself in it. Why the fuss? Well, she’s not Chinese so obviously has no right to wear Chinese clothing (at least according to someone going by the name of “Jeremy Lam” who tweeted at her “For it simply to be subject to American consumerism and cater to a white audience is parallel to colonial ideology.” Fortunately some sanity was injected into the brouhaha wherein other self-identified Asian-Americans thought his criticism was silly. Likewise many in China and Taiwan proper saw nothing wrong with it whatsoever and saw it as a sign of cultural appreciation.
Sadly, opinion’s like Lam are not isolated. This politically correct ideology of so-called “cultural appropriation” has been around for a few years, most notably rearing its ugly head each Halloween wherein little children are made to feel guilty for wanting to dress up as Indians (take your pick) or Eskimos. But even big kids can’t play; last year at Princeton University a Cinco de Mayo party was shut down over concerns about cultural appropriation (can’t have white people wearing sombreros you know!).
Proponents of this concept will deploy terms like “imbalance of power” or “form of colonialism” in their rhetoric to provide a veneer of intellectualism. But this is all just nonsense; this fact being underscored by their claim of it being a violation of “collective intellectual property rights.” Collective intellectual property rights can’t exist because intellectual property is a fallacious concept. You can’t own an idea any more than you can own another human being. Sure one can “legally” do these things; slavery used to be legal and was enforced by the state just as today intellectual property (trademark, copyright, patents) are made legal and enforced by the state – but that doesn’t make them real rights or forms of property. The state could make it legal to own a star. That’s right, you sir can own Betelgeuse! Here’s a piece of paper that gives you title to it. So the law can say one thing but logic dictates the true reality of things.
So it is with intellectual property. The only reason property rights exist is to eliminate (or at least minimize) conflict over (1) scarce, (2) rivalrous, and (3) alienable resources. There are only two options when two people are in conflict over the same object: agree on a set of uniformly applied rules that clarify who owns what, or, bash each other’s heads in until one person is dead and the other takes control of the item in dispute. Even though thieves and the state practice the latter, most sane people prefer the former.
All attributes must be true for something to be categorized as property. The air we breathe satisfies 2 and 3, but not 1 (air is basically super-abundant), therefore we don’t own air, what would be the point? A physical object, say a car, is scarce (they aren’t falling out of the sky), it is rivalrous because if I’m using it you can’t use it at the same time and alienable (if I give it to you then I no longer have control over it). This is why ownership of another is not a real property right: a person may be scarce and rivalrous, but they are not alienable in the sense that you, the slave, can choose to do something other than what the “master” wishes (so that is why we don’t own our children or pets per se, we provide custodial care, but they own themselves).
Likewise ideas can’t be owned because they satisfy neither 1,2 or 3 above. If I have an idea and I tell you, now you have the idea, but I still have it; it is not rivalrous or alienable because we can both have it at the same time. So in the same way when someone “appropriates” the trappings of another cultural (fashion, food, language, music) they are not taking from that cultural, rather they are augmenting it by spreading those ideas to a further audience. Although it is not a rights violation, there is still good and bad cultural “appropriation”, so Keziah Daum = good, but Justin Trudeau = bad (google images of him in India recently, dude, please just stop).
P.S. To head off the obvious objections borne out of the pragmatic “but how would X work without IP…?” please see this page.