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IP rights discussed for Angkor Wat

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Tourists and monks flank the temples at Siem Reap. Photograph: Heng Chivoan/Phnom Penh Post

The ancient works of Cambodia’s King Suryavarman II could become a protected intellectual trademark if the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) finalises a treaty recognising cultural heritage, the organisation’s head said yesterday.

Angkor Wat, a 12th century temple complex and the Kingdom’s No 1 tourist destination, became an area of contention with India earlier this year when an Indian organisation announced plans to produce a replica in the country’s state of Bihar.

Although the organisation, Mavahir Mandir Trust, has altered plans for what was reportedly a carbon copy of the structure, Cambodian officials have decried the potential economic and cultural effects on the country.

While not naming the dispute directly, WIPO director general Francis Gurry said the exploits of the national treasure should belong to Cambodia. “I cannot make comments on that case but I would say you have a unique cultural heritage in Cambodia that nobody else can produce,” he told the press yesterday during the “44th ASEAN Economic Ministers Meeting.”

“What intellectual property should try to do is enable that rich cultural heritage to be translated into a commercial asset. But not a commercial asset for all people. A commercial asset of Cambodia.”

The challenge now, according to Gurry, was finding a mechanism for putting Cambodia in complete control of what he called the Kingdom’s “intellectual and cultural heritage”.

The treaty under discussion, which could become international law within a year, would provide a comprehensive framework for protecting works such as Angkor against domestic and international forgeries, he added.

Mavahir Mandir Trust has not abandoned its plans to build the temple, the Post reported this month. The Indian organisation said it will remove the word “Angkor” from the name of the project and claims the structure will surpass the size of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, which is currently the largest Hindu complex in the world.

The Hindu style of the temple could raise further questions on the ultimate origin of the structure’s intellectual concept.

The Indian project was a grievous infraction on Cambodia’s economic rights and cultural heritage, Dit Tina, undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Commerce, said yesterday. The Cambodian government was actively engaged in the drafting of the WIPO treaty, although future international recognition was still questionable.

“Now we are working with WIPO. International laws or agreements require negotiation and discussion to get approval from each member state.”

“We know only what we are going to protect, but we don’t know how we will protect it or whether other countries will agree to join the treaty. It depends on the negotiations ... to establish an international law that we can use against the violation. But at this time, we are in the negotiation stage.”

The vast majority of intellectual property law today pertains to the contemporary cultural and intellectual products of companies.

Cambodia has recently come under intense scrutiny for its inability to protect the intellectual property of foreign companies on its soil. Early this year, the US Embassy in Phnom Penh called infringements in the Kingdom “pervasive”.

Cambodian officials have admitted they lack the resources needed to curb the sales of pirated DVDs and other protected goods.

To contact the reporter on this story: May Kunmakara at kunmakara.may@phnompenhpost.com

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