Ideas are less free than ever before

Published in Green Left Weekly, 12 September 2001, p. 12


Brian Martin


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Copyrights and patents are forms of intellectual monopoly that mainly benefit powerful groups. Largely unquestioned until recently, there is now the beginning of an opposition movement.

Independent inventors have little to gain from patents. Microcomputer pioneer Don Lancaster says that patents do not prevent others from using your ideas. They only entitle you to sue for patent infringement. That’s not much use unless you’re rich.

Against a big company, an independent inventor has little chance, especially since, as Lancaster says, "There is not one patent in one thousand that cannot be invalidated or severely minimized by a diligent enough search for prior art done in obscure enough places." He goes further to say that big industry doesn’t buy ideas or patents and doesn’t pay patent royalties voluntarily. Instead of patenting, Lancaster suggests publishing your ideas in a major magazine, thereby putting them in the public domain where they can’t be patented by others.

Biotechnology companies look around for natural products with beneficial properties, such as the neem tree, long used in rural India for making various products. When the companies take out patents on neem chemicals, uses and products, they pay nothing for the labour of local people who discovered and developed them. Third World activists are now organising against this form of "biopiracy."

Software companies make enormous amounts of money through their monopolies over computer programs that can be copied for the cost of a few cents. But there’s an alternative: free software. With the computer code openly accessible, anyone can contribute to testing and improving it. The result is high quality software, such as the Linux operating system, free for the asking. Yet if you read computer pages in newspapers or visit computer shops, almost all the information is about proprietary software, because that’s where advertising and profits come from.

Large pharmaceutical companies use patents to stop other companies making cheaper copies of their drugs. The result is massive waste as companies compete by developing closely similar drugs and spending enormous sums on advertising and promotion. Development of drugs for common diseases in poor countries is neglected - there’s no profit in it.

Pharmaceutical companies tried to stop South Africa from using cheap copies of AIDS drugs. They finally buckled earlier this year due to bad publicity. Countries are legally entitled to invoke compulsory licensing to obtain cheaper drugs for public health reasons, but big business and governments of rich countries exert enormous pressure to oppose this.

These are a few examples of how copyrights and patents serve the rich and powerful. Copyrights and patents are examples of what is commonly called intellectual property, but a better expression is intellectual monopoly. A strange feature of the rhetoric about free markets is that ideas are now less free than ever before. The US government has been the driving force behind expanding the scope and enforcement of intellectual monopolies globally.

The official rationale for intellectual property/monopoly is to encourage greater production of ideas by giving incentives to producers through granting temporary and limited monopoly rights. But most actual intellectual producers are salaried employees. Rights to their intellectual products are owned by the employer.

Furthermore, in recent decades the scope and duration of intellectual monopolies have grown out of all proportion. If the point is to encourage production of more ideas, why does copyright last for 70 years after the death of the author? Does knowing that your writings are protected by copyright for 70 rather than say 10 years after you die really give you a greater incentive to produce?

Also, why is every business memo covered by copyright? Surely there’s no need to encourage more business memos.

Actually, there are plenty of ideas in the world. Copyrights and patents lock up what should be freely available for everyone, creating inequality by enclosing the "information commons."

Only a few best-selling authors make big money from their books, while most others receive only peanuts from their royalties. Nearly all countries except the US pay more for using foreign intellectual products than they do by selling their own. Intellectual monopolies are essentially a way of sucking money out of the many and giving it to a few.

From a social point of view, it makes much more sense to expand the public domain, making intellectual products freely available, at the same time establishing alternative systems to pay contributors, such as wages, fees, grants or guaranteed income.

It is now incredibly easy to copy most intellectual products. People use photocopiers, videorecorders, email and music files to make copies, often in violation of the law. While widespread copying helps to discredit intellectual monopolies, it does not directly undermine the overall system.

There are opponents of intellectual monopolies in various areas, including software, pharmaceuticals and genetic engineering. But until recently there has been nothing to bring them together.

In March, the World Intellectual Property Organisation announced a student essay competition. It was pretty obvious that only essays favouring intellectual monopolies were expected. In response to the WIPO contest, a group of critics set up a counter-essay contest, inviting essays from around the world giving the other side of the story, such as:

* "I’m HIV-positive but I can’t afford anti-HIV drugs due to patent law."

* "I’m a farmer but the seeds I want are protected by patents."

* "I’m an independent scientist but can’t afford to access scientific journals on expensive databases."

* "I’m a teacher but I can only assign very old books since ones under copyright are too expensive."

The organisers are not opposed to payment for intellectual work, but do oppose "the over-protection of intellectual property and according it trumping power over other values and social priorities such as access to medicines, to education, and to the sharing of ideas and information."

Promoting this counter-essay contest has led to involvement from activists from many different arenas, including supporters of low-cost generic drugs, opponents of genetic engineering, third world activists, and free software promoters. This is an exciting initiative in the development of a more coordinated opposition to intellectual monopolies.

The launching date for the counter-essay contest is 4 September. Essays of less than 2000 words are welcome from anyone on the topic "What does intellectual property mean to you in your daily life?" and are due by 15 March 2002. There is a small prize fund, but the emphasis is not on competition but instead on stimulating debate. In addition to essays, point-of-view contributions up to 400 words are welcome for posting on the contest site. For more information, send a query to or see the website