Problems with Intellectual Property

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This article is a summary of a more elaborate essay at

Summary of the arguments against IP

Geshan Manandhar (in Asia Commons mailing list):

" Governments generate large quantities of information. They produce statistics on population, figures on economic production and health, texts of laws and regulations, and vast numbers of reports. The generation of this information is paid for through taxation and, therefore, it might seem that it should be available to any member of the public. But in some countries, such as Britain and Australia, governments claim copyright in their own legislation and sometimes court decisions. Technically, citizens would need permission to copy their own laws. On the other hand, some government-generated information, especially in the US, is turned over to corporations that then sell it to whomever can pay. Publicly funded information is "privatised" and thus not freely available. [1]

The idea behind patents is that the fundamentals of an invention are made public while the inventor for a limited time has the exclusive right to make, use or sell the invention. But there are quite a few cases in which patents have been used to suppress innovation. [2] Companies may take out a patent, or buy someone else's patent, in order to inhibit others from applying the ideas. From its beginning in 1875, the US company AT&T collected patents in order to ensure its monopoly on telephones. It slowed down the introduction of radio for some 20 years. In a similar fashion, General Electric used control of patents to retard the introduction of fluorescent lights, which were a threat to its sales of incandescent lights. Trade secrets are another way to suppress technological development. Trade secrets are protected by law but, unlike patents, do not have to be published openly. They can be overcome legitimately by independent development or reverse engineering.

Biological information can now be claimed as intellectual property. US courts have ruled that genetic sequences can be patented, even when the sequences are found "in nature," so long as some artificial means are involved in isolating them. This has led companies to race to take out patents on numerous genetic codes. In some cases, patents have been granted covering all transgenic forms of an entire species, such as soybeans or cotton, causing enormous controversy and sometimes reversals on appeal. One consequence is a severe inhibition on research by non-patent holders. Another consequence is that transnational corporations are patenting genetic materials found in Third World plants and animals, so that some Third World peoples actually have to pay to use seeds and other genetic materials that have been freely available to them for centuries.

More generally, intellectual property is one more way for rich countries to extract wealth from poor countries. Given the enormous exploitation of poor peoples built into the world trade system, it would only seem fair for ideas produced in rich countries to be provided at no cost to poor countries. Yet in the GATT negotiations, representatives of rich countries, especially the US, have insisted on strengthening intellectual property rights. [3] Surely there is no better indication that intellectual property is primarily of value to those who are already powerful and wealthy.

The potential financial returns from intellectual property are said to provide an incentive for individuals to create. In practice, though, most creators do not actually gain much benefit from intellectual property. Independent inventors are frequently ignored or exploited. When employees of corporations and governments have an idea worth protecting, it is usually copyrighted or patented by the organisation, not the employee. Since intellectual property can be sold, it is usually the rich and powerful who benefit. The rich and powerful, it should be noted, seldom contribute much intellectual labour to the creation of new ideas.

These problems - privatisation of government information, suppression of patents, ownership of genetic information and information not owned by the true creator - are symptoms of a deeper problem with the whole idea of intellectual property. Unlike goods, there are no physical obstacles to providing an abundance of ideas. (Indeed, the bigger problem may be an oversupply of ideas.) Intellectual property is an attempt to create an artificial scarcity in order to give rewards to a few at the expense of the many. Intellectual property aggravates inequality. It fosters competitiveness over information and ideas, whereas cooperation makes much more sense. In the words of Peter Drahos, researcher on intellectual property, "Intellectual property is a form of private sovereignty over a primary good - information." [4]


Here are some examples of the abuse of power that has resulted from the power to grant sovereignty over information.

  • The neem tree is used in India in the areas of medicine, toiletries, contraception, timber, fuel and agriculture. Its uses have been developed over many centuries but never patented. Since the mid 1980s, US and Japanese corporations have taken out over a dozen patents on neem-based materials. In this way, collective local knowledge developed by Indian researchers and villagers has been expropriated by outsiders who have added very little to the process. [5]
  • Charles M. Gentile is a US photographer who for a decade had made and sold artistic posters of scenes in Cleveland, Ohio. In 1995 he made a poster of the I. M. Pei building, which housed the new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. This time he got into trouble. The museum sued him for infringing the trademark that it had taken out on its own image. If buildings can be registered as trademarks, then every painter, photographer and film-maker might have to seek permission and pay fees before using the images in their art work. This is obviously contrary to the original justification for intellectual property, which is to encourage the production of artistic works.
  • Prominent designer Victor Papanek writes: "...there is something basically wrong with the whole concept of patents and copyrights. If I design a toy that provides therapeutic exercise for handicapped children, then I think it is unjust to delay the release of the design by a year and a half, going through a patent application. I feel that ideas are plentiful and cheap, and it is wrong to make money from the needs of others. I have been very lucky in persuading many of my students to accept this view. Much of what you will find as design examples throughout this book has never been patented. In fact, quite the opposite strategy prevails: in many cases students and I have made measured drawings of, say, a play environment for blind children, written a description of how to build it simply, and then mimeographed drawings and all. If any agency, anywhere, will write in, my students will send them all the instructions free of charge." [6]
  • In 1980, a book entitled Documents on Australian Defence and Foreign Policy 1968-1975 was published by George Munster and Richard Walsh. It reproduced many secret government memos, briefings and other documents concerning Australian involvement in the Vietnam war, events leading up to the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, and other issues. Exposure of this material deeply embarrassed the Australian government. In an unprecedented move, the government issued an interim injunction, citing both the Crimes Act and the Copyright Act. The books, just put on sale, were impounded. Print runs of two major newspapers with extracts from the book were also seized.

The Australian High Court ruled that the Crimes Act did not apply, but that the material was protected by copyright held by the government. Thus copyright, set up to encourage artistic creation, was used to suppress dissemination of documents for whose production copyright was surely no incentive. Later, Munster and Walsh produced a book using summaries and short quotes in order to present the information. [7]

  • Scientology is a religion in which only certain members at advanced stages of enlightenment have access to special information, which is secret to others. Scientology has long been controversial, with critics maintaining that it exploits members. Some critics, including former Scientologists, have put secret documents from advanced stages on the Internet. In response, church officials invoked copyright. Police have raided homes of critics, seizing computers, disks and other equipment. This is all rather curious, since the stated purpose of copyright is not to hide information but rather to stimulate production of new ideas." [8]


1. Dorothy Nelkin, Science as Intellectual Property: Who Controls Research? (New York: Macmillan, 1984).

2. Richard Dunford, "The suppression of technology as a strategy for controlling resource dependence," Administrative Science Quarterly , Vol. 32, 1987, pp. 512-525.

3. Peter Drahos, "Global property rights in information: the story of TRIPS at the GATT," Prometheus, Vol. 13, No. 1, June 1995, pp. 6-19; Surendra J. Patel, "Intellectual property rights in the Uruguay Round: a disaster for the South?" Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 24, No. 18, 6 May 1989, pp. 978-993; Darrell A. Posey and Graham Dutfield, Beyond Intellectual Property: Toward Traditional Rights for Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities (Ottawa: International Development Research Centre, 1996).

4. Peter Drahos, "Decentring communication: the dark side of intellectual property," in Tom Campbell and Wojciech Sadurski (eds.), Freedom of Communication (Aldershot: Dartmouth, 1994), pp. 249-279, at p. 274.

5. Vandana Shiva and Radha Holla-Bhar, "Intellectual piracy and the neem tree," Ecologist, Vol. 23, No. 6, 1993, pp. 223-227.

6. Victor Papanek, Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change (London: Thames and Hudson, 1985, 2nd edition), p. xi.

7. George Munster, Secrets of State: A Detailed Assessment of the Book They Banned (Australia: Walsh & Munster, 1982).

8. Wendy M. Grossman, "alt.scientology.war," Wired, Vol. 3, No. 12, December 1995, pp. 172-177, 248-252.

More Information

The above is a summary of Brian Martin's Against Intellectual Property

See our general entry about Intellectual Property