Arenas of the Immaterial: How Human Actors Deal with Diverging Norms of Intellectual Property

The project examined the history of the introduction of intellectual property rights in Africa and how local social actors cope with these rights in a context of increasing global mobility. It studied the articulation of the legal framework of intellectual property rights in their local contexts, the ways in which local actors in Africa work with these legal norms and how they modify and adapt them according to their practices and interests. The project analyzed the tension in which legal norms for the protection of intellectual property which are aligned with international legal imperatives find themselves when they encounter established local norms and the corresponding sense of justice. Its objective was to understand the extent to which the different rights in intellectual property (authors’ rights, copyright, protection of patents, brands, folklore, and local knowledge) were established, the social conditions in which they began to make sense, and the complex local social networks that are involved and decisive for their successful establishment.

Trademark protection and authors’ rights, as “products of modernity” or “travelling models,” are being introduced into African societies in an ongoing process. In order to understand this process, it is important to gain knowledge about the conditions of the norms’ effectiveness in the reality of everyday social relations. As long as the norms are regarded as being exterior introductions, individual actors will follow them only when they are of immediate advantage to them and will demand that the state should provide effective protection of their rights. However, in order to do this, the state would require their cooperation. Similarly, the state representatives do not seem to follow the newly introduced rules either, since they are individual actors with their own interests as well. This creates a tension that can develop in a productive direction only when the participating actors are able to accept the rationale of such norms. Hence, the narratives of justification that accompany the introduction of intellectual property rights sometimes conflict with the actors’ interests and their unequal levels of knowledge and sometimes appear advantageous to them. This gives rise to normative orders that are characterized by intrinsic contradictions and are subject to constant dynamic transformation.

The research was carried out from three perspectives: from a diachronic, an actor-centered and a transnational perspective. Data were generated through a literature analysis and, above all, through extensive ethnographic field research in African localities. The study of the local perspective through “thick participation” and interactive interviews is what first enables anthropologists to grasp the local actors’ point of view, how they experience the norms in question, and their motives and justifications for their actions.

The results of the field research show that the different African governments, which are marked by their precolonial histories and by the various colonial and postcolonial ideologies, have developed very distinctive ways of dealing with cultural goods in the countries under study (Cameroon and Mali). Taken together, the results reveal a divergence between norms and daily reality or actual practice, specifically as far as the different discourses about piracy are concerned. They also point to the complexity of the local actors’ experiences that shape their actions. Hence, the state can no longer be understood as a neutral instrument for the implementation of norms; rather, both state representatives as well as the often well-informed local actors are guided in their actions by their own socially inscribed logics and interests.

The most important events in this project:

Workshop: Mamadou Diawara and Ute Röschenthaler, State regulations and Local Praxis (with early career researchers from Africa and Germany), Cluster of Excellence "The Formation of Normative Orders", Goethe University, Frankfurt am Main, July 14–18 and 27–28, 2014

Symposium: Who owns the praise? Oral literature, cultural norms and rights in artistic productions in Africa (on occasion of the 60th birthday of Mamadou Diawara, organized by Ute Röschenthaler and  Matthias Grubera), Lautertal, Mai 9, 2014.

Conference: How does transnational mobility transform cultural production? Informality and remediation in African popular cultures (organized by Ute Röschenthaler, Alessandro Jedlowski, Patrick Oloko and Ibrahima Wane), Point Süd in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, January 4–10, 2013.

International Conference: Intellectual Property, Normative Orders and Globalisation, part 2, (organized by Mamadou Diawara and Ute Röschenthaler), in cooperation with the ZIAF, Forschungskolleg Bad Homburg, June 2–4, 2011.

International Workshop: Intellectual Property, Normative Orders and Globalisation (organized by Mamadou Diawara and Ute Röschenthaler), in cooperation with the ZIAF, Forschungskolleg Bad Homburg, December 2–4, 2010.


The most important publications in this project:

Röschenthaler, Ute: “Copying, branding, and the ethical implications of rights in immaterial cultural goods”, in: N. A. Mhiripiri and T. Chari (eds.): Media Law, Ethics, and Policy in the Digital Age, Hershey, Pennsylvania: IGI Global, 2017, pp. 101–121.  

Röschenthaler, Ute and Mamadou Diawara (eds.): Copyright Africa: How Intellectual Property, Media and Markets Transform Immaterial Cultural Goods, Canon Pyon: Sean Kingston Publishing, 2016.

Diawara, Mamadou and Ute Röschenthaler (eds.): Competing Norms: State Regulations and Local Practice, Frankfurt am Main: Campus, 2016.

Diawara, Mamadou: “’La bibliothèque coloniale’, la propriété intellectuelle et la romance du développement en Afrique“, Canadian Journal of African Studies 48(3), 2014, pp. 445–461.

Diawara, Mamadou: “Justice in whose name: The domestication of copyright in Sub-Saharan Africa”, in: Gunther Hermann (ed.): Justice and Peace. Interdisciplinary Perspectives on a Contested Relationship, Frankfurt am Main/New York: Campus, 2013, pp. 140–162.


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