Cultural Branding, Geographic Source Indicators and Commodification
Theory, Culture & Society 33:2 (2016), 125-45
27 Pages Posted: 25 Sep 2011 Last revised: 20 Dec 2016
Date Written: November 10, 2014
Geographic Indications (GIs) are a form of trademark protection afforded to products that are historically the product of a particular place and production process by restricting use of the name to products that actually come from the place in question; “Champagne” can only come from that region of France, for example. GIs are often proposed as a way to protect indigenous cultural products from Western appropriation: a global GI regime would ensure that “Mysore” silk sarees were produced in India, and thus ensure that the traditional producers of these goods would be the beneficiaries of purchases of them. Such a strategy would return both economic value and cultural recognition to the producers of these goods.
In this paper, I argue that the move to branding culture puts the source indicating function of trademarks radically into question, thereby increasing the risks associated with an expansion of GIs. Increasingly, consumers consume brands not for the products they designate, but for the affiliation with the brands themselves. Since the benefits of source protection to indigenous communities depend upon a consumer’s desire to have a product actually from that source community, if consumers care more about the brand designation than the actual source, those benefits will be more difficult to realize. Instead, the logic of trademarks in late capitalism will tend to push geographic source protections toward becoming de facto IP rights in culture.
After an introductory section, the second section of the paper theorizes trademarks as part of a process of commodification in order to suggest that the logic of the process leads to an emphasis on brands themselves as sources of value, rather than the products to which they refer. The third section uses this theoretical frame to discuss the risk that geographic source protections will tend to reduce cultural diversity, both by tending to promote exoticized images of cultures, and by increasing the importance of standardization. The fourth section situates these concerns in the larger context of David Harvey’s work on capitalist accumulation, in order to underscore how the reification of culture discussed in the third section can be used as a tool by cultural elites to suppress dissent and treat the source protection as intellectual property rights in culture. The concluding section offers some policy suggestions for ways to ameliorate these risks.
Keywords: Geographic Indicator, Trademark, Branding, Commodification
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