Advocacy, Codes of Practice, IPR, Legalities, Policy

Co-creating: Revisiting the Ethics of Engagement between Designers and Craftspeople

Sethi, Ritu, Chiba, Moe


Issue #002, Winter, 2019                                                                            ISSN: 2581- 9410

Design intervention has been an established initiative of development projects initiated by Governments and NGOs across the world as a means to enhance market reach and the livelihood of craft communities. However, these multiple initiatives which are meant to support craftspeople and their communities often end up benefiting the designer’s and other commercial interests. Innumerable instances have been cited by craftspeople and others on the ethics of engagement where design development of craft traditions has ended up publicizing the designer while the craftsperson has continued to remain unnamed and unknown.

In the design world, practitioners and students are well aware of the moral issues and laws governing copying and design infringements. Design practitioners use all means to protect their designs and ideas as they are alert to their moral rights, economic benefits and future business potential. However, the same level of rigor does not seem to always apply when the designers deal with traditional craft communities.

While marketing pundits eulogize brand identities and designer products are the current rage, charges of cheating and infringement of design are not infrequent in these circles and counter-charges grab headlines. However, amidst all this babble of newsprint and televised footage, there is a marked absence of any mention of copying associated with the many hundreds of indigenous crafts and textiles that exist in this country.

Is this deafening silence because there is no copying of these hallowed traditions? Or is it because there is a widely accepted view that copying from traditional craftsperson’s and weavers is acceptable, and, in fact, even given tacit approval?

We have all seen a Warli painting featured across the pallu of one famous designer’s sari, a Madhubani motif on a jacket of another; iconic block-prints that have been screen-printed, a handloom replicated on the power-loom. Craftspeople, artists and weavers who have sewn and embroidered, cast and molded, engraved and etched, printed and painted India’s millennia old cultural identity seem to have no place in popular conversations on ‘design’ and ‘brand’ and apparently, no perceived rights or ownership of their familial and community knowledge.

Mainly located in rural1 areas, the craft sector in India provides employment to many millions of people. An overwhelming majority of whom belong to the weaker, more vulnerable sections of society, being either Scheduled caste or tribe or belonging to minorities or to ‘other backward classes’. It is an accepted truth that craftspeople and their communities are the holders and bearers of tradition, of skills and techniques, craft ritual and folklore. These hereditary skills are acquired through an inter-generational oral transmission, sharpened by apprenticeship and long practice. This amalgam of knowledge on material and processes, artistic expression and ritual meaning has responded and evolved with changing ecologies and environs over the ages, continuing to be an intrinsic part of craft practice today. Designers and manufacturers are alert to the values inherent in craft products, differing as they do from other goods. Endowed with symbolic meanings that are often greater than their inherent usefulness, these products play a special role in peoples’ lives. The Moosaris of Kerala who cast the bell metal Charakku cooking utensils in diameters of up to 8 feet, the Sthapatis of Swamimalia who cast the bronze idols are only some such examples. These craft genres are clearly delineated brand identities that have been honed over decades –often centuries – of aesthetic development, technological fine tuning, and innovation.

Yet there is a strong perception within traditional craft communities of an inequality in their status as craft practitioners. While ‘new’ design input into the craft is assumed to be exclusively in the domain of the designer, crafts people, whose tradition is being explored, are relegated to a biddable, subservient role. This taxing paradox of value constantly confronts craftspeople wherein a high valuation is placed on the product, while they, the makers and holders of traditional craft knowledge are relegated to obscurity and anonymity.

The additional challenge faced by crafts people is the ubiquitous availability of replicated and fake craft products that are marketed in high street stores in India and across the globe under the name of the craft or weaving cluster. Factory printed Bandhini, the traditional tied and dyed textile of Rajasthan and Gujarat to the rubber reproductions of the Kolahpuri chappals of Maharashtra, the textiles and T-shirts printed with Madhubani and Warli motifs, the iconic block prints of Bagh, Bagru, Sanganer, and other centers available in cheap screen printed copies to the famed hand woven brocades of Banaras now replicated on the power loom, are only a few such examples. The all-pervading availability of these fakes and ‘borrowings’ has hit craftspeople hard, not just economically by depriving them of the benefits of their traditional community knowledge but also deepening the perception of inequality and unfairness. Crafts people are ill-equipped to tackle this onslaught and this furthers their feeling of vulnerability.

How to protect the moral right and intellectual property of craft communities over their millennium old creation and the potential economic benefit arising from it has been the subject of international debate since at least the 1982 when an expert group was convened and a sui generis model for intellectual property type protection of traditional cultural expressions was developed. (WIPO- UNESCO model provision law for folklore). After nearly three decades, however, debate still continues without any conclusive legal protective measure enacted so far.

In view of the slow progress of debate at international level, some of the countries have taken initiatives at the national level to respond to their particular context and needs. Panama is one of a few countries in the world to have enacted a sui generis law to protect traditional cultural expressions and related knowledge2. Introduced in 2000, the law aims at protecting traditional dress, music, dance and major handicrafts. Just as in India, wide spread sale of cheap imitation of traditional handicrafts has been threatening the indigenous craftswomen of Panama, for whom the craft is often the sole means of income. A Label of Authenticity was introduced by the Government under the Law 20 to be attached to a numbers of indigenous crafts so as to guarantee their authenticity. Although the label of authenticity does not prevent the sales of cheap imitation, it allows people to differentiate authentic traditional products and encourages buyers to pay a fair price to the producers3.

In New Zealand, where the Government has a clear policy to recognize Maori rights, the national Trade Marks Act 2002 is aimed, amongst others, “to address Maori concerns relating to the registration of trade marks that contain a Maori sign, including imagery and text”4. The Act foresees the appointment of Advisory Committee whose function is to “advise the Commissioner whether the proposed use or registration of a trade mark that is, or appears to be, derivative of a Maori sign, including text and imagery, is, or is likely to be, offensive to Maori”5. Besides, Maori is one example of a society that manages property law through customary rights (Ragavan S, 1999).

In India, the enactment of Geographical Indication is expected to bring much needed legal protection of community knowledge. A family of Trade-Related Intellectual Properties Right, GI Act aims at identifying good as originating from a particular place, where a given quality, reputation or other characteristics of the good become essentially attributable to its geographical origin. GI is commonly given to natural, agricultural and manufactures goods. The GI tag enables producers to differentiate their products from competing products and is considered to be effective tool to protect those good associated with or deriving from local cultural traditions. Till July 2011, 153 goods have been registered under the Act out of which 99 belong to handicraft / folk art tradition including Chanderi weaving of Madhya Pradesh, Madhubani painting of Bihar and Pochampalli Ikat of Andhra Pradesh6.

However it is still a new system. The number of registered GI is not yet sufficient to cover the wide range of traditional crafts of India7. Besides, the system is mean to certify the ‘place’ of origin of a product and not necessarily to recognize the specific group of ‘people’ who make it. Further, it is yet to be demonstrated how the registration system concretely benefit the craftspeople and protects their economic and cultural rights. A strong post-registration follow-up mechanism is necessary to effectively link GI recognition and the well-being of craft communities.

We therefore continue to live and struggle in an imperfect world. In the meantime, examples of passing-off, misappropriation and borrowing of traditional designs continue to impede craftspeople and their communities. In the absence of appropriate institutional and legal protection for the time being, we need to explore alternatives to alleviate the situation.

The Fair-trade movement, a global association with a growing membership and increasing awareness among consumers is a well-known example of ethical standard setting. Defining the relationship between producers and buyers, addressing issues ranging from fair wages, child labor to a healthy working environment its voluntary nature is an interesting example of changing dynamics. Then, why not establishing a similar ethical guideline between designers and artisans?

This paper presents a case for change through the creation of a voluntary code of ethics governing design interaction. A self regulated mechanism that seeks to redress the basis of engagement between crafts people and designers, a moral binding, if we may, to create a fair and ethical sharing of benefits between designers and craftspeople. The guiding philosophy being encapsulated in the Co-creating Code of ethics for designers and others, based on an acknowledgment of the ownership of traditional cultural knowledge, creating parity and respecting the rights of craftspeople.

The Co-creating Code, voluntarily signed up to by designers is in effect a moral bond that addresses the imbalances in the process of interaction and the benefits that accrue thereof. The Code serving as a practical guideline to the interactions and the issues that arise in the interface for a well-balanced and mutually beneficial relationship.

The building blocks to the Co-creating Code are the recognition of the craftspeople as equal partner in the process of design development substantiated by parity in apportioning both credit and the economic benefits of design development.

While the guiding values and standards need to be debated further, the Co-creating Code is a constructive move towards protection of the economic and moral interests of crafts people, who are vulnerable to powerful commercial interests. Creating the confidence that issues of misuse, borrowing and misappropriation of their traditional cultural knowledge is being addressed.

The principals of the Co-creating Code work to ensure a level playing field between professional designers and traditional craftspeople, giving due acknowledgement to the craftsperson’s knowledge and skill, an equitable attribution, by naming and placing the craftsperson in the center of design development, recognizing their rights as holders of traditional knowledge. Craftspeople thereby receive fair credit and recognition on the one hand and just economic remuneration on the other.

In the long run the principles of co-creating will prove to be a valuable business asset creating trust, mutual respect and economic gain in a balanced manner for both designer and crafts people. Re-defining the roles both in the sharing of economic benefit and in credit sharing. Developing in effect a broad strategic view wherein the rights of the craftspeople are balanced in an equitable way with the contribution of designers. This then is, we hope, the first step to a repositioning of the setting between craftspeople and designers, a recasting of their role where their knowledge systems can no longer be harnessed without acknowledging ownership or apportioning benefits to them.


All Indian Artisans Craftworkers Welfare Association (AIACA), 2010, Policy Briefs, Geographical Indications of India, Socio-Economic and Development Issues
Craft Revival Trust/Artesania de Colombia, 2005, Designer Meets Artisan, Delhi, India
Government of New Zealand, Trade Marks Act 2002
Ragavan S., 1999, Protection of Traditional Knowledge, Center for Intellectual Property Rights Advocacy, National Law School of India University, Bangalore, India.
Ranjan, Aditi and MP Ranjan (ED.), 2007, Handmade in India
WIPO, (year unknown), Panama: Empowering Indigenous Women Through a Better Protection and Marketing of Handicrafts”

Census of India: http/
Craft Revival Trust: http/
Geographical Indication Registry: http:/


  1. According to the 2001 census there are 6,38,365 villages spread across India
  2. Law No. 20 (June 26, 2000) on a special intellectual property regime for the collective rights of indigenous communities, for the protection of their cultural identities and traditional knowledge.
  3. This information on Panama is drawn from a document of WIPO– “Panama: Empowering Indigenous Women Through a Better Protection and Marketing of Handicrafts”.
  4. Trade Marks Act 2002, New Zealand.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Geographical Indication Registry: http:/
  7. Craft Revival Trust (http// documents more than 880 different craft forms while recently published “Handmade in India” identifies some 516 meta craft clusters across India.


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