Thursday, February 06, 2003

Nature reviews the forthcoming Information Feudalism:
Much of the history of intellectual-property rights is, to say the least, ironic. Britain, much of continental Europe and the United States have over the past decade supported the global extension of their intellectual-property standards in an effort to stamp out the widespread copying of technology in the developing world. Yet these same countries were themselves guilty of using these strategies in the past to further their own economic interests. Until 1891, copyright protection in the United States was restricted to US citizens and, between 1790 and 1836, patents were similarly restricted. The Netherlands and Switzerland also avoided adopting a patent system when industrialists wanted to make use of foreign inventions.

This is not a book for the faint-hearted. General readers may wish to understand why patents and copyright have become prominently linked to such issues as access to medicines in poor countries and the consequences of pirating software and music. But they may become weary as the book traces, often in great detail, how representatives from many industrial, government and other organizations allegedly conspired to manipulate patent and copyright systems to become accomplished operators in the 'knowledge game', to the detriment of the public interest and the developing world.

Those who stay the course will gain a clear insight into why so many non-governmental organizations are furiously lobbying for the removal of TRIPS and for reform of the patent and copyright systems. But they will not discover why many other constituencies, including industry, universities and governments, are broadly in favour of protecting intellectual property. Crucially, evidence of why the patent system has, on balance, almost certainly benefited consumers hardly gets a mention. As a consequence, many of the arguments advanced in the book are seriously flawed.

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