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!