Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), and Collective Intelligence

게시 날짜: 7월 9, 2010, 카테고리: International Political Economy

There have been many efforts to protect intellectual property rights (including TRIPS) and to some extent they are necessary, but one should not ignore the problems those protection measures impose on world economics, and the high potentials of collective intelligence.

The Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) is an international agreement administered by the World Trade Organization that sets down minimum standards for many forms of intellectual property regulation as applied to nationals of other WTO Members. It was negotiated at the end of the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in 1994. Specifically, TRIPS contains requirements that nations’ laws must meet for: copyright rights, including the rights of performers, producers of sound recordings and broadcasting organizations; geographical indications, including appellations of origin; industrial designs; integrated circuit layout-designs; patents; monopolies for the developers of new plant varieties; trademarks; trade dress; and undisclosed or confidential information.[1]

Because the United States has played a significant role in negotiating this agreement by intense lobbying, with support of other developed countries like EU and Japan, there has been a ceaseless debate about the nature of this agreement. For example, China is the most infamous country which has little respect towards the agreement. It argues that TRIPS is a restraint on developing countries created to manipulate the technological disseminations and protect the vested interests of the developed countries (especially US). Actually after the cold war ended, the military, industrial, and technological espionage between USSR and US had cooled down, leaving US as the sole hegemonic figure in terms of both hard and soft power. Since there is no match to the hard power (that is, mostly military power) of US, protecting its soft power (cultural, technological power) became a critical issue. As many of the culturally and technologically advantaged countries shared this anxiety, TRIPS came into being. Actually, the concept of ‘intellectual property’ was not quite strong before TRIPS came along. And it is indeed a solid argument that the rights of those who create or possess non-material, cultural, technological, and intellectual assets should be protected.

However, this is not the whole picture. Since most of the intellectual property (that is, copyright and patent) owners are members of the developed countries, many people criticize TRIPS in respect of its wealth redistribution effect—forcing the poor citizens of developing countries to pay the intellectual property owners of developing countries—and its imposition of artificial scarcity on the citizens of countries that would have had weaker intellectual property laws. Some regard this kind of movement to protect intellectual property rights as ‘an irony of globalization’. In the true meaning of globalization, they say, the sharing of information and knowledge is prerequisite. More to that, the last decade (the very first decade of 21st century), was an era of ongoing information revolution. Technological, cultural, and behavioral advances brought about significant changes regarding the intellectual property rights.

I, as a half-baked writer, and a frequent blogger, have witnessed how the information revolution came to threaten intellectual property rights and how measures were reinforced and evolved to protect them in the past decade. However, I must say I always had faith in sharing ideas and advances that shared intelligence can bring to humankind. For example, I post all of my works including writings, translations, and songs online without any constraints. I do not ask those who wish to access my information to pay for it. If they want to quote my work, they can do it freely with stating the source of origin. In return, I have access to thousands of layers of intelligence created by fellow human beings whenever I need them. (Well of course, I do not have to disclose mine first to gain access to others’.)

Some scholars name it ‘collective intelligence’. Collective intelligence can be defined as a shared or group intelligence that emerges from the collaboration and competition of many individuals. According to Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams, there are four principles needed for collective intelligence: openness, peering, sharing, and acting globally. All of which, define our current online cyberspace. Web 2.0, including copylefts, interconnected blogospheres and other free-shared media or information sources (ex. Wikipedia), is an iconic example of collective intelligence. Those whose ideas are not well represented by broadcast media or their own government and community, can express and share their opinions and information with other interconnected actors of the web. Those who cannot afford to buy as many books, software, or any kind of source and tool of intelligence as those with capabilities, can access necessary information at much cheaper costs or for free.

Of course, there is a catch. Since there are tons of discourses that are not properly verified, one must grow an insight to distinguish the gems from pile of rubble. This insight is to sort out useful and legitimate intelligence from those that are not, and to build one’s own structure of ideas without any exogenous disturbance. And concerning the creators and owners of intellectual properties, the future is not quite ‘promising’ per se. Their rights will be restricted compared to the times without information revolution. However, as we can redistribute the social and economic inequalities according to the maximin rule, I believe that the same goes to the intellectual properties. Moreover, the consequences of these changes are not necessarily bad for the owners. For example, due to the rise of mp3 format and sharing of the music, many record labels and artists were threatened regarding their record selling. But, they soon adapted and moved on from hard copies (ex. CD) to digital release system, and readjusted their revenue structure, focusing on live concerts and events.

People always find alternative and creative ways to protect their interests and improve their living. Why can’t we both protect and share our IP rights at the same time? Why should humankind abandon the benefits of collective intelligence just because some groups of people are reluctant to share theirs? I agree that there must be an institutional protection for intellectual property rights, but I also think in addition, the information, knowledge, and technology as a whole must be able to be shared, benefiting the mankind in a globalized world. (Although TRIPS states this as one of their primary goals, the reality is quite different.) If we have means to create a new system that involves a relatively minor limitation of IP owners’ rights and a significant expansion of collective intelligence, we must go for it.


[1] Wikipedia page on TRIPS (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TRIPS)

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