THERE'S MUCH SHEDDING of tears and gnashing of teeth in the galleries and auction rooms of London these days. The fount of this collective anguish is not some aesthetic outrage or a plunge in cultural hipness, although the Young British Artists and Cool Britannia seem to have been in deep freeze for so many years that they're almost in crisp, cryonic state. The mother of this misery is of French origin and goes by the rather mellifluous name of droit de suite. This is legally defined as a royalty for visual artists or their estates on the resale of artworks after the initial sale to a dealer or a private buyer. Distinct from reproduction rights and not applicable to private deals, this royalty - 3 per cent to 5 per cent (10 per cent in Iceland) of the selling price of the artwork or sometimes the seller's profits - is usually paid to some copyright-collecting societies on behalf of the artist, much in the same way that the recording industry works. The droit originated in France in the 1920s amid the outrage that widows of artists killed in the first world war were often left in penury while their late husbands' works were sold at exorbitant prices. It was eventually included in the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works in 1991, and was adopted across the European Union in 2001. Britain reluctantly joined the menage a droit this year, although it will only cover - for a period of five years - works by living artists, unlike in the rest of the EU where it is applied to works that are in copyright, meaning both living and recently deceased artists. Proponents hail it as a way of ensuring justice for creators and as an extension of intellectual property. However, critics label it a form of misplaced social-welfare tax that threatens to expunge the art market in London, or the vestiges of one in Paris. They warn that a strict implementation of droit de suite will drive traders to seek shelter in New York, Geneva, Sydney, Tokyo or even Hong Kong, where the droit does not yet hold sway. But at a maximum of 5 per cent on actual selling price, the amount involved is actually piddling. True, if one adds the dealer's commission and other incidental costs, a seller can bid adieu to about 15 per cent of the final price - not exactly commercially suicidal. Perhaps what really bothers the dealers is the bureaucratic interference that will be set loose upon the generally unregulated art trading and auction markets. And in this sense, one can empathise with the dealers and gallery owners, for it is wise to keep bureaucrats removed from artistic decisions, especially when it comes to curatorial calls or festival programming. Letting bureaucrats decide aesthetic issues for the rest of society can be retrogressive, if not disastrous. Look at the case of the US National Endowment for the Arts and the way it was forced to abandon in 1997 an exhibition featuring some uber-confrontational works by photographers Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano, two controversial artists whose shocking images are now considered part of the American cultural canon, capturing the horrors and hopes of those dark Aids-riddled decades. In Hong Kong, one can only cringe at the thought of the bizarre case involving The New Man, a life-size bronze sculpture by the late Dame Elisabeth Frink which was banned from being shown publicly at a Central building lobby in 1995 because of its semi-erect state - and we're not talking about the statue's stance. In this age of Viagra and Levitra, such a representation was actually prophetic. And yet some groups found Frink's work, owned by a Hong Kong company, scandalous. It took the brave folks at the Hong Kong Art Centre three years to take off The New Man's cardboard fig leaf to show the silliness of the brouhaha over a semi-flaccid member. Sadly, the controversial West Kowloon Cultural District project may be heading down the same road to Sillyville. In their zeal to ensure that the US$3 billion project is pursued in a 'democratic' way, some well-meaning legislators may be letting the genie of interference out of the bureaucratic bottle. By having a statutory body call the shots on how the project is eventually managed, legislators may be repeating the mistakes of the defunct Urban Council, especially in cultural policy. As in business and finance, Hong Kong should follow a laissez-faire approach in the art world. Any cultural policy should be as broad, inclusive and malleable as possible. Unfortunately, legislators and some arts-related groups in Hong Kong have been asking for a cultural policy set in stone, a dead-end for a sector that is eternally evolving. As one wizened participant in last year's SCMP conference on the economics of arts in Hong Kong pointed out, the only time he could remember a government adopting such a fixed cultural policy was in China in 1966 to 1976 - which gave us the Cultural Revolution. As Hong Kong's legislators and administrators ponder a new cultural policy, perhaps they can think about the warnings from London's art-market practitioners - the unintended results of the noble thought behind the droit de suite can be direly bittersweet.