Intellectual Property

What is IP?

The World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) defines Intellectual Property as creations of the mind. This means everything from scientific discoveries to songs. By referring to these things as property organisations such as WIPO seek to give them the same status as physical properties such as land or tools.

Most governments agree with this, so it is possible to own and trade in intellectual property in most countries, much as you would with physical property.

However there are some obvious differences between intellectual and physical property which have resulted in confusion and rebellion.

A resource that never runs out

When you create a piece of physical property you can hold it in your hand. Give it away or sell it, and you no longer hold it. Intellectual property on the other hand remains with you when you pass it to others. For many this undermines its status as property. Unlike physical property, intellectual property increases in value when you share it with others. As the age old adage goes Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach him how to catch fish and he will never go hungry. He may also teach others so they no longer go hungry either.

On the internet the frailty of intellectual property has been most apparent in the sharing of music. Music can be shared easily with countless other people using the internet. This has angered many people who make their living through selling music – it undermines the way they make their living. Music sharers argue that most of these people do not create music. They just trade in the CDs by which other people can listen to it. The internet cuts out these middle-men. Musicians are still free to make money in other ways, such as playing live to a paying audience. After all, before the development of CDs, records or tapes there were musicians making a living through performance.

Another area of controversy around IP is in the scientific community. Science is founded on the sharing of intellectual property. Isaac Newton said that his discoveries where made by standing on the shoulders of giants, referring to scientists before him. From the viewpoint made possible by their discoveries he could see further and make his own.

Today, in order to make a living, many scientists work directly or indirectly for businesses that obtain ownership of new discoveries. Businesses seek to use these discoveries to gain advantages over their competitors. This would be thwarted by scientists working for different companies and sharing their ideas. In order to be paid many scientists have to prevent others from standing on their shoulders and seeing further.

In both cases we have a tension between advantages for everyone, and advantages for a few. Some would make the argument that without benefits for the few there is no incentive for scientists or musicians to innovate. Others say that the middle-men are no longer necessary in a world where communication is so fast, cheap and easy.

How could this possibly affect Tanzanians?

What on earth is the effect of this on people living in communities with limited access to modern communication techniques? Why should Tanzanians take an interest in IP?

Protecting local IP

Intellectual property is not just the realm of big businesses. Every single person on the planet has the right to benefit from their intellectual property.

The problem is that many small scale societies do not place a monetary value on their knowledge. Farming or medical techniques passed down for millennia amongst groups such as the Maasai and Chagga are intellectual property. However,
who would be so bold to claim they are theirs?

Intellectual property can be something of a land grab – the first to stake claim to a piece of IP becomes the owner. For people in smaller communities this may be hard to achieve, and there is the risk of those better read in the legalities of the system acquiring IP that is not the result of their, or their ancestors hard work.

Farming and IP

The people that may be the first to seriously meet the sharp edge of IP laws may be farmers. The genes of plants can be discovered and therefore become intellectual property. New strains of crops can be claimed as IP. In 1997, RiceTec, a multinational company claimed a patent on basmati rice to worldwide horror. The crop had been grown in India for thousands of years, yet here a relatively young company was seeking to control who could trade in this staple crop!

The use of more legitimate IP can also lead to controversy. Recently a Canadian farmer was sued by the multinational seed company Monsanto for keeping seeds from the previous year’s crops and planting them, in contravention of the license. Comically, the farmer had never signed a license, and claimed that his field had been contaminated by seeds blown in from a neighbouring farm.

As you can see, the world of intellectual property can intrude into the more physical world. It is likely to do so more and more all over the world. It is something even Tanzanians will need to understand.

Interesting links

Originally published in Arusha Times 331


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