On the Very idea of Cultural Appropration

There’s an interesting “David and Goliath” story coming out of Austin, TX this week involving a local beer emporium and a national brewing company over intellectual property.  The NPR affiliate for Austin, KUT, reports that “Whip In,” a so-called “Dhabapub” serving Indian cuisine, is under pressure from Dogfish Head Brewing Company to change the name of its in-house line of beers, Namaste Brewery

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According to an email received by Whip In’s owner, the name infringes on the exclusive trademark held by Dogfish for its Belgian-style white beer branded as “Namaste.”  Intellectual property disputes are certainly not uncommon in American society, even to the point of absurdity (consider Disney’s exclusive rights to the song “Happy Birthday”).  Yet, this case brings to the surface prevailing assumptions about cultural ownership, religious speech, as well as the power of the brand in American life. 

 

The general manager of Whip In, Dipak Topiwola, who is of South Asian descent, likens the position of Dogfish Head to “cultural imperialism” on Facebook, suggesting that terms and ideas stemming from ancient religious traditions are intended, by definition, to remain free to all.  Dogfish Head, on the other hand, maintains their actions are nothing more than protecting its brand.  “There is no point,” they replied, “in having a trademark unless we actively defend it.”

 

Are terms like “Namaste,” when deployed as part of a commercial branding strategy, exempt from intellectual property law because they presumably transcend private ownership altogether, as the owners of Whip-In assert?  If so, does this endanger other brands who utilize seemingly “religious” language, such as Redemption Rye? Or are the owners actually making a claim about authenticity and who can claim the rights to certain “religious” ideas and practices? 

 

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All of these questions are significant and worthy of exploration.  However, while this appears as a conflict between, on one side, the logic of business, and the integrity of a religious tradition on the other, I believe that this dispute actually reveals the common ground between both sides.  It says something significant about how market societies imagine “culture.”  Both parties in this case characterize “culture” as a kind of brand.  Like a brand, it refers to a discrete object in the world, which only an authorized group can legitimately own.  Moreover, the culture must be protected from theft and cheap imitations that diminish its value. 

 

Perhaps what is most interesting about this dispute therefore is not how contemporary business appropriates religious beliefs and practices in the pursuit of profit and brand identity, but rather how the very idea of “appropriation” is premised on a notion of ownership grounded in the logic of capitalist markets.  

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