Review: Access to Knowledge in the Age of Intellectual Property

I reviewed the book, Access to Knowledge in the Age of Intellectual Property from Zone Books/MIT Press (2010). It appears here in the Teachers College Record. The review is below:

Access to Knowledge in the Age on Intellectual Property is a collection of over 30 essays by an international body of scholars, lawyers, and activists, detailing the “access to knowledge” movement, or “A2K” for short. A2K is an emerging movement most succinctly described as a reaction to the global expansion of intellectual property law. Adherents to the movement detail the deleterious effects such expansion has had individual ability to access information and build knowledge, especially in the developing world. Such expansion is not only a problem for education, but also for human health. Because many medications are protected by intellectual property law, such as those for treating HIV/AIDS, access to those medicines has become prohibitively expensive for much of the developing world. It is not the cost of manufacturing the drug, but rather the idea of the drug (owned largely by western pharmaceutical companies, such as Pfizer, Bristol-Meyer Squibb, among others) where most of the cost lies.

The volume includes very detailed accounts of the expansion of intellectual property law, especially with regards to international law. For example, the TRIPS Agreement (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) is frequently cited. TRIPS is an agreement that sets the standards for intellectual property for members of the World Trade Organization (WTO). The volume’s stance towards this agreement is best captured by Shashikant, who finds that “TRIPS has very significantly titled the balance in favor of the holders of intellectual property rights, most of whom are in developed countries, vis-à-vis consumers and local producers in developing countries and vis-à-vis development interests” (p. 142). The thinking in this volume is that such discrepancies between developed and developing countries are going to be further exaggerated by the expansion of intellectual property. For example, Shashikant notes that beginning in 2005 India will have to start enforcing its TRIPS obligations, noting that “the possibility of supplying affordable generic medicines in the future for new drugs seems rather bleak” (p. 143).

The volume is not limited to discussions of medicine, but ventures into many other areas that are impacted by expansions in intellectual property law. For example, Aigrain discusses the rejection of software patents by the European Parliament, Verzola covers the use of proprietary agricultural products for creating artificial scarcity, and Prabhala talks with Charles Igwe about the formation of Nollywood (a burgeoning Nigerian film industry) and its run-ins with copyright law. In addition to discussing concrete cases, several essays attempt to further a philosophical understanding of intellectual property. For example, Liang articulates a metaphysics of ownership in “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Book” (p. 277), and Atteberry uses a post-colonial lens for understanding the relationship between intellectual property and former colonies (p. 329). Cultural studies is a prominent in this volume, as evident from the extensive use of cartoons and A2K visual propaganda, as well as through essays such as Liang’s second, “Beyond Representation: The Figure of the Pirate,” which attempts to clarify the connection between peer-to-peer file sharers and pirates (p. 353).

The volume’s strongest asset is its discussions of the historical, legal, and political forces from an international perspective and how these forces are bringing about certain kinds of harmful effects, such as unaffordable medicine in the developing world. In the moral sense, most would agree that fending off HIV/AIDS and preventing death should take precedence over profits and intellectual property restrictions. However, it is at times unclear if the authors want to upend intellectual property in only the most egregious cases (e.g., mass death by HIV/AIDS), or upend intellectual property more generally. Certain statements make it difficult to tell where each author stands on this issue. For example, the volume’s editor Kapczynski argues the following in the opening chapter:

A critical genealogy of the concept of access to knowledge allows us to map the sometimes contradictory and often complex interventions that are coming to constitute A2K’s theoretical commitments. The first and foremost effect of these interventions is to destabilize the dominant legitimation narrative of intellectual property today, the despotic dominion account that treats the privatizations of information as the necessary condition for its efficient production and exploitation. (p. 47-48)

This statement would seem to indicate that the purpose of the A2K movement is to undermine intellectual property more generally since there are not any real qualifications placed on the statement. Could one person’s “despotic dominion” be another person’s livelihood? The strength of the volume is when it gets into the particulars, but weakest when it attempts to generalize the critique to intellectual property more generally.

A drawback of the volume is that it does not seriously consider–even a potential level—the prospect of intellectual property as a promoter of innovation and creativity. It would have been more convincing if it contended with some of the arguments from intellectual property’s proponents. For example, Turow, Aiken and Shapiro (2011)–leaders of the Author’s Guild–argued in the New York Times that the ability to make money on intellectual property in 16th century England brought about “a wave of brilliant dramatists,” including Shakespeare and Marlowe. They find that “literary talent often remains undeveloped unless markets reward it,” and undermining copyright “ignores centuries of scientific and technological progress based on the principle that a creative person should have some assurance of being rewarded for his innovative work.” The volume avoids issues such as how writers should get paid for their creative work. However, when confronting intellectual property head-on, the arguments could be perceived as a threat to any group who requires income for their intellectual work: everyone from novelists to pharmaceutical companies.

The volume could be advanced by more thoroughly addressing the alternative perspective: that intellectual property plays some role in creativity and innovation. This could be achieved by doing qualitative and quantitative research on the role of intellectual property in people’s lives and how it does (or doesn’t) make possible creative work. The authors of the volume employ a philosophical, political, and legal perspective, but what is absent are the types of social science research that could demonstrate the viewpoints of entire populations. Similarly, more analysis is needed that can project what kind of affects reduced intellectual property would have on IP-intensive industries, such as pharmaceutical companies. Would reduced IP protection hinder pharmaceutical companies from creating the next wave of medical treatments?

The position taken at the outset of the volume is that intellectual property inhibits creative work. The alternative position is never seriously considered, such as: how important is achieving commercial success in allowing an individual to continue his creative work? Authors talking about the importance of this external validation are readily available from sources like The Paris Review, which is well known for interviewing and documenting the creative process of novelists and essayists. An example from this source is the recent interview with the novelist Jonathan Franzen. Franzen’s comments are striking for two reasons. First, he notes the importance of finding and appealing to an audience. Some of his earliest novels lacked this: “When your first two novels haven’t found much of an audience, it makes sense to stop and try to figure out who might read a literary novel nowadays, and why they might be doing it” (p. 45). Second, he describes extensive amounts of time needed to write a novel; in his case, eight to ten hours a day. Such time engagements would preclude him from engaging in other kinds of work. In reading his interview, it would seem his ability to sell novels allows him to continue working as a novelist. Eroding one’s ability to sell their intellectual property—because of piracy or other reasons—has the potential for undermining creative work, at least for those who are interested in getting paid to do it.

An argument not often cited in the debate over intellectual property is the structural positions of the actors who are making their cases. What is often not discussed is the fact that professors often do not get paid to produce intellectual property. For the most part, they are paid for teaching, and secondarily for being involved in research projects (or vice-versa depending on the institution and individual). Some receive royalties for certain books, such as textbooks, but this group is relatively small in comparison to all academic texts. This point is made by Darton (2011) with regard to the Google Book Project, who makes it clear that the concerns of professional writers are quite different from those of academic writers, “who do not depend on the sale of books to make a living.” For professors, intellectual property is an obstacle to teaching and research, and the publishing community they are used to interacting with (commercial scholarly publishers) are often thought to add little value to the academic enterprise. One must wonder if the structural positions of the authors, several of which are academics, is partially what is influencing their position. And the question becomes, if their livelihood was contingent upon selling their intellectual property, like a novelist or a recording artist, would they still feel the same way?

The real problem is not intellectual property, but property. Since all individuals are born into a world that is already divided up and owned by others, individuals are forced to enter into arrangements where they extract funds from the social system by way of work. One way these funds have been generated is selling one’s intellectual property so that one can acquire her own property, or borrow that of others (e.g., rent). If intellectual property is undermined, there will be one less means by which one can acquire basic necessities, causing individuals to turn to other ways of making money (e.g., teaching, live concerts). The narrowing of the ways individuals can earn income could strengthen an already strong “despotic dominion”: work.

References

Darnton, R. (2011, April 28). Google’s Loss: The Public’s Gain. New York Review of Books. Retrieved from http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/apr/28/googles-loss-publics-gain/

Franzen, J. (2010). Jonathan Franzen, The Art of Fiction No. 207. The Paris Review, Winter 2010. Retrieved from http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/6054/the-art-of-fiction-no-207-jonathan-franzen

Turow, S., Aiken, P. & Shapiro, J. (2011, February 15). Would the Bard have Survived the Web? New York Times, pp. A29. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/15/opinion/15turow.html

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