Comic Books and Copyright: Cambodian artistic heritage at risk

An editorial submitted to the Phnom Penh Post on 30 July 2012 authored by Jason Dittmer (University College London) and Katherine Brickell (Royal Holloway, University of London).

Imagine walking through the market and seeing something you created with training, care, and effort piled high in a stall, reproduced by someone else without any acknowledgement or royalty. This scenario has unfolded time and time again for Cambodian comic book artists, a talented but embattled group whom we have been interviewing with the help of Chorlida Leng (Paññāsāstra University), John Weeks, and the staff of Our Books, an organization dedicated to promoting Cambodian comics culture. We propose that greater copyright protection and enforcement for artistic works would help provide work and creative outlets for this group. More importantly, it would help preserve the artistic national heritage of Cambodia.
These comics artists are often highly trained, either at the Royal University of Fine Arts or at Phare Ponleu Selpak in Battambang, and the self-trained artists are especially talented at emulating and building upon the style of past works. Through their specialized talents these artists possess knowledge of uniquely Cambodian ways of representing Cambodian bodies, landscapes, and culture. The last decade has seen a deluge of foreign television shows and movies that certainly entertain. But with the decline of the Cambodian comics industry has come a blood-letting of talent: over time the ability to tell Cambodian stories, with Cambodian art, will disappear as a new generation of artists fails to replace this one.
This may sound melodramatic, but our interviews indicate exactly how these artists conceive of their work as contributing to the Cambodian nation. Whether through the telling of ancient tales from Cambodian history or through stories of contemporary social and political relevance to Cambodia such as gender relations, these artists see themselves as occupying a niche that will otherwise go unfilled by foreign media imports. At the moment the comics community is largely sustained by work supplied by NGOs in Phnom Penh who have begun to use comics as a way of educating young people. These NGOs appreciate the power of the image to convey serious information in an entertaining way, and at a relatively low cost. This lifeline is much appreciated, but it will only last as long as comics remain in vogue among the NGO’s funders. What will happen when these patrons eventually turn elsewhere?
What is needed is a local market for comics that supports the comics’ creators. What can be found in the markets are unauthorized re-publications of past works that benefit only the pirates who re-publish them and also flood the market with cheap product. There is no incentive for artists to create new works, as they will be quickly appropriated by the pirates who do not compensate the artist for her or his time, training, and imagination. Why would anyone make a new creative work in this situation? Today in Cambodia there is nominal protection for artists’ work, but in practice there is nobody to turn to about the stack of counterfeit comics in the market. According to Cambodian copyright law, passed in 2003, those selling pirated goods can be fined up to 20 million riel ($5000) and receive up to five years in prison. However, this year the government will be forced to ask the World Trade Organization for a five year extension on their requirement that Cambodia actually enforces the law, because the government is as yet incapable of doing so.
Without a means to develop their own stories and their own voice, today’s comics artists in Cambodia must patch together work from book covers, illustrations for children’s books, and the like. All fine work, but fundamentally these are about telling others’ stories. This is true also of the work done for NGOs, no matter how helpful that work is in educating the people about various issues. What is needed is a space in which Cambodians can tell their own stories, experimenting with old and new methods of visually representing and narrating everyday life in Cambodia. The current situation regarding copyright law risks the permanent loss of this important artistic heritage.


~ by Jason Dittmer on September 24, 2012.

2 Responses to “Comic Books and Copyright: Cambodian artistic heritage at risk”

  1. […] Some thoughts following on from Jason Dittmer and Katherine Brickell’s commentary on Cambodian comics copyright. […]

  2. Hmm… ‘pirates’? It’s clear that we need to flesh out this role middlemen have played, ideally by talking to some of them directly. If we can, that is.

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