International Intellectual Property as Modern Imperialism

Published on 30th November 2015

The article under review deals with the implications of the imposition of and  internationalization of western-based notions of intellectual property rights on so-called Third World countries and Aboriginal and Indigenous communities everywhere.

The origins of intellectual property laws in the western world are the beliefs that creativity must be rewarded in order to foster further creativity and innovation, a by-product of which is societal development in general. The individual was the centre of the universe in capitalist development. Property rights reposed in individuals. So did intellectual property rights in copyright, patent or industrial design.This is the so-called economic incentive theory of economic development.

This view of the world led scholars to develop a hierarchy of civilized versus uncivilized societies and peoples. Those who put their creative thoughts into writing and ideas into patents were regarded as civilized and those who did not were uncivilized. Intellectual property rights were introduced to reward the creative. Slavery and colonialism was imposed to civilize the uncivilized.

Third World countries and Aboriginal and Indigenous societies had quite different notions and understandings of what propels societal development. It was not based on individual accomplishment but it was a communal effort and culturally-powered. Property rights did not repose in individuals. Creations albeit individually based were the benefit of everybody in the community. There was no necessity to write or patent anything. Creations would be passed on down the generations through oral traditions and traditional “intelligentsia.” Slavery and colonialism seriously disrupted this state of existence. International intellectual property laws continue to assail this epistemology.

Prior to the Uruguay Round of world trade talks, world trade agreements dealt mainly in industrial and manufactured goods, but Uruguay introduced agreement in informational goods--TRIPS. TRIPS was an extension of western based notions of intellectual property rights into the third world. TRIPS is the continuation of western imperialism by means of control and imposition of western notions of intellectual property laws on the rest of the world.

The rest of the world is now required to develop laws and institutions in their societies: intellectual property laws and judicial mechanisms that enforce the protection of global intellectual property strictures and secondly the rest of the world has to be part of the international protection of intellectual property rights through world treaties (Berne and Paris etc) and bodies like the World Trade Organization.

These arrangements have ignored the traditional notions of property rights in the third world and as a result may have engendered conflicts between third world states and traditional communities in these societies as well as between third world countries and the developed world with respect to intellectual property rights.  There is clearly a clash between western and third world understandings of the role of intellectual property rights and the purposes thereof. She mentions a number of these in her article.

“What the internatinalization of intellectual property implies is that there is only one way to participate in the international economy and that is by playing in accordance with prescribed rules, regardless of its impact on a group of peoples,” one author once wrote.  Creativity in the Third World may suffer and the beneficiary is the developed world. From slavery and colonialism, this has been the fate of the Third World. And now in the age of international intellectual property imperialism, the state of affairs continues.

By  Dr. Munyonzwe Hamalengwa

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