Egypt Trying to Copyright Pyramids

By Gene Quinn
February 19, 2008

The Egyptian government is attempting to enact legislation that would seek to force royalty payments from anyone who uses an image of the pyramids or one of the other to be protected antiquity images.  I saw this story in the LA Times this weekend, but it appears to have been first reported by National Geographic about four weeks ago.  Zahi Hawass, secretary general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, told National Geographic News: “We want to protect Egyptian antiquities. We want to protect our values. This is the most important thing.”

Before we get all offended by this story and the fact that Egypt also apparently wants to enforce this soon to be enacted law against those in the United States and China, there is absolutely no chance that even if enacted this law will be enforced in the United States.  In fact, I would put the chance that such a law would receive recognition in the U.S. at roughly the same chance as a snowball’s chance in that extremely warm and undesirable spot of legend, and I am not talking about Hell, Michigan, but rather about the place of eternal damnation, you know the one I am talking about.

Both Egypt and the U.S. are parties to international copyright treaties such as the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, which essentially guarantees that an author of an artistic work in one country has the same rights in any country that has signed the treaty as he/she would have in their own country.  Nevertheless, the U.S. also has well established rules, as does virtually every country throughout the world, that says that anyone can freely use any works that have fallen into the public domain.  Given that the pyramids and other antiquities would have lost copyright protection thousands of years ago it seems absolutely certain that there is no way that a court in the United States would recognize such Egyptian copyrights even if they do come into being.  The U.S., thankfully so, is extremely adverse to removing from the public domain anything that has been in the public domain.  Thus, this story is more amusing and perhaps even ridiculous than it is threatening.

Even though there is no real legal issue here in the U.S., let me take this opportunity to discuss some copyright law topics that such protection could raise.  First, copyright law does not protect functionality.  In fact, if something is functional it is not entitled to copyright protection.  An argument could be made that the Great Pyramids of Egypt are exactly that, functional.  Yes they are monuments, which would perhaps tend to suggest copyrightability, but at the time they were created the only way known to build such a monument was to build it as a pyramid.  In order to reach so high into the sky the only stable structure would be that of a pyramid, so if copyright protection applied it would be given to protect more than that which is artistic.  Copyright protection would have protected the structure itself, preventing anyone from making a similar structure, thus it is unlikely that under U.S. law such a functional monument would be allowed protection.

Of course, in 1990 Congress first allowed protection for architectural works, which cover the original design of a building embodied in any tangible medium of expression, including a building, architectural plans, or drawings, is subject to copyright protection as an architectural work.  Such architectural works include the overall form as well as the arrangement and composition of spaces and elements in the design but do not include individual standard features or design elements that are functionally required.  Thus, even now with specific architectural works being specifically allowed copyright protection the Great Pyramids would not enjoy such protection in the United States.

Finally, for those wondering whether the Luxor in Las Vegas, Nevada will need to fight a frivolous copyright lawsuit brought by Egypt, don’t worry.  According to Hawass Egypt has no intention of seeking to stop that use of the pyramids.  It is apparently good advertising for Egypt.  But smugglers beware!

The Author

Gene Quinn

Gene Quinn is a Patent Attorney and Editor and founder of IPWatchdog.com. Gene is also a principal lecturer in the PLI Patent Bar Review Course and an attorney with Widerman Malek. Gene’s specialty is in the area of strategic patent consulting, patent application drafting and patent prosecution. He consults with attorneys facing peculiar procedural issues at the Patent Office, advises investors and executives on patent law changes and pending litigation matters, and works with start-up businesses throughout the United States and around the world, primarily dealing with software and computer related innovations. is admitted to practice law in New Hampshire, is a Registered Patent Attorney and is also admitted to practice before the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. CLICK HERE to send Gene a message.

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Discuss this

There are currently 5 Comments comments.

  1. markmalek February 22, 2008 11:58 am

    Interesting move for Egypt to take, especially in light of the fact that the US provides Egypt with over $3 billion in aid every year. Does their proposal stop artists from making painting and selling photographs of the Great Pyramids? What about their copyright protection? It seems as though this will not be too enforceable, but I am concerned with the rights of copyright owners in Egypt, i.e., artists that rely on exporting their copyrightable artistic impressions of Giza.

  2. Gene Quinn February 22, 2008 1:09 pm

    Mark-

    I think that the proposed legislation would prevent artists from painting and selling photographs. I have not read the actual legislation, but Hawass has been saying that there are a lot of people making money copying the images of the pyramids and other antiquities, and Egypt wants a piece.

    One rather strange provision would allow you to copy the covered antiquities so long as they are not in the proper proportion. So if a statue were 24 inches by 6 inches you could not make a copy that is 12 inches by 3 inches, but could make a copy that is 11 inches by 3 inches. Strange really. Seems like even if the legislation passes and were to be enforced in the US, which would be a huge stretch, there will be easy ways around it.

    Maybe this is more about stopping those who sell replicas on-site at the tourist locations within Egypt. But then why would Hawass go out of his way to mention the US and China? Perhaps that is where the replicas are being made? I don’t know for sure.

    -Gene

  3. hraslan April 21, 2008 12:14 am

    Well, I remember having a what the ….? expression when I first read about it in Egyptian local newspapers. From what I gathered in the end, the whole issue started with a remark by Hawas that others are profiting off ancient Egyptian replicas, images etc, esp those in China. He thought there has to be some way for Egypt to get some form of remuneration. Another issue was building replicas of pyramids, sphinx, etc in other countries the latest of which would be Dubai(that’s where the Las Vegas Luxor hotel was brought up). Then somehow the issue was turned into a copyright issue and a draft law was made. I have yet to see the draft law(I’m hoping this summer when I am back in Cairo) but just like you I had the same initial what’s copyright got to do with it and how will we enforce such a law on other countries?!!! I think the whole issue shows a mix-up between cultural property and copyright and the news have died on that issue so, I do not see it as going anywhere at least for now.

    One last thought, Mark I do not see how the US aid comes to play here. It seems like every time there is an issue between Egypt and the US, the aid talk is brought up. The US is giving aid for a reason that is to secure an ally and the US gets a lot from Egypt in exchange.

  4. Moha Hakim June 22, 2009 9:50 am

    Actually it is almost impossible to copyright something like pyramids or other historical sites. Cause there are already millions of photos for it . and they are already take since years. it would be easier to increase the enterance fees for those sights……

  5. american biologics July 30, 2010 4:07 pm

    loooool seriously? Trying to copyright a World Wonder? xD I KINDA understand a little why they would want to copyright the pyramids, but to me, the pyramids are simply too old to be credited to a single person or group of persons, and I would think that it would get shot down in any sort of court that happens to have that case.