The New York Times, May 27, 2008, is reporting a fascinating example of the government of Mexico barring the use of images of ancient artwork in a tourist advertising campaign. OK, the images are emblazoned on the body of a well-known actress. I think we can all agree that some people will be drawn to plan their vacation in Mexico, and someone else will be offended. Moving on to my main point...The government of Mexico is effectively asserting control over the use of the ancient images in an ad campaign. It is not quite copyright, and it is not quite censorship (maybe). But it is, under whatever label, a determination by the government of acceptable uses of imagery of importance in the culture and history of the country.
Many countries have some form of law protecting the use of images, sounds, words, that are part of the cultural heritage of the country. That seems to be the situation in this example. According to the article, the National Institute for Anthropology has the authority to reject "anything seen as exploiting a historical artifact's dignity." Here in the US, we ordinarily do not have such laws, although we get to the point indirectly. For example, controlling the location gives a right to control some uses of images. If I own the land where historic structures are located, I can review your project and deny you access to the location if I do not like your plans. We also have examples of the use of trademark law to protect visual images of buildings and trees that are outside the reach of copyright control.
Therein lies my point. Copyright has limits. Georgia Harper and I often express concerns about the scope and duration of copyright law, but even so, it has its limits. It does expire. It does not protect everything. It does not give all rights to all works. If you have an interest in asserting control over ancient pyramids, and copyright does not do the trick, what are your choices? Sometimes look to other law, and sometimes create new law. Speaking of pyramids, I did read an item this month about a quest by the government of Egypt to gain new legal rights to control images of the Pyramids.
Why would anyone want such control? Many reasons. In the Mexico example, it was to control the dignity of a great heritage. Maybe in the next case it will be simply money. Rights of control mean an opportunity to permit uses. Maybe that permission will come with a fee. Regardless, the Mexico example reminds us that "rights" come in layers, and the layers are of different thickness around the world. You might find a great picture of the Maya pyramids, but to use that picture in the U.S., you have to clear the copyright. To use the picture in Mexico, you might have to clear the copyright and get approval from the government. If the picture happens to include an actress, you might also be clearing the rights of publicity. And then we can talk about trademark, contractual restrictions, and more. Just when you thought you figured out copyright, you found another layer of the law.