Saturday, November 8, 2008

Lokavidya and Intellectual Property Rights

I am cross-posting a old post of mine from Lokavidya Panchayat, a blog run by Vidya Ashram in Sarnath, Varanasi. This is a post I wrote recently on issues that arise when we talk about intellectual property rights for people's knowledge (lokavidya).

1. Lokavidya: Protection versus commodification
The legal system of patents, copyrights, trademarks and intellectual property rights regimes in general is key to ensuring that knowledge can be traded in the market as a commodity. Clearly defined property rights are the basis for good contracts and good contracts enforced via the legal (police, judiciary) apparatus of the State are the basis for efficient market transactions. Most conclusions in economics that glorify the virtues of allocation via free markets rely on the existence of clear, enforceable contracts. Commodifying knowledge itself (as opposed to the fruits of knowledge, or knowledge embodied in products) is difficult due to the non-rival nature of knowledge. Non-rivalry means that the use of the commodity by one person does not preclude simultaneous use by another. Thus unlike a shirt or a computer, a design, a blueprint, a way of doing things, can be used by many people at once. This non-rival nature of Knowledge has been appreciated for centuries. Knowledge has begun to be seen as a valuable asset in the past two decades with the emergence of the Knowledge Society or the Information Economy. Pressures on its commodification have therefore increased. However the very same technological forces that have placed focus on the revenue-generating potential of knowledge have also created more impediments to its commodification. I refer to Information and Communications Technologies which bring the non-rival nature of knowledge into sharp relief. The controversies surrounding pirated music, scholarly paper, books and so on in electronic form clearly demonstrate this. The non-rival nature of knowledge which makes it nearly costless to reproduce (mimic) is however a double-edged sword. Even as progressive movements such as FOSS or open-access libraries emerge to take advantage of non-rivalry with the aim of undercutting corporate profits, so also, corporate and formal sector entities are able to "lift" knowledge from the people without due compensation to them while asserting that corporate use does not preclude use of the same knowledge by society at large. Since the dominant discourse around property rights for knowledge revolves around patents, copyrights and so on, proposals are also being floated for protection of lokavidya via similar IPRs. In the general climate that views knowledge as a revenue-generating asset, "poor people's knowledge" has attracted attention from international development agencies as another possible way to challenge poverty. If only poor people could take advantage of the knowledge they possess (by participating in the world market, of course), they could begin to climb out of poverty. But this demands a legal system of protection for their knowledge.

An incremental advance over lokavidya can generate windfall profits with the help of patenting regimes. A hypothetical example will clarify. Knowledge of several medicinal herbs is part of lokavidya. This knowledge is the result of accretion over many years and is a product of the ongoing knowledge activity of many ordinary men and women. In Marxian terms much of this knowledge is produced for its use-value, not its exchange value. That is, it is produced for use, not for sale. Much of it is also in the public domain and access to it is open to all. Companies which are interested in the knowledge for its exchange-value (its profit earning potential) can take advantage of the open-access nature of the knowledge. They can make a small incremental change to it, say alter its potency, isolate the active principle, or make some other small chemical modification to render it a "new product." This can then be patented and sold for profit. Even if the presence of the new product does not preclude the use of lokavidya, the fact still remains that the knowledge activity that contributed to the lokavidya commons was not rewarded or recognized.The above scenario calls for some thinking on ways and means to protect lokavidya from such appropriation. However, lokavidya by its nature is dispersed and difficult to trace to a single source. How can it be patented or copyrighted? More fundamentally, should it be? What other ways exist besides modern IPR regimes to protect lokavidya from appropriation while using it for the benefit of its holders? Perhaps some lessons can be learned from the history of the commodification of land.

2. Some analogies between Knowledge and Land

Of course unlike knowledge, land if a rival good (its use by one person precludes its use at the same time by another). However by analogy with land, one can identify two reasons for commodifying knowledge. One, in order to buy and sell knowledge itself and two, in order to earn rent on its use. Both these ways to earn revenue from knowledge are commonplace today. Patent fees and royalties are an example of the second. They are analogous to rent on land. The commodification of land via the process of enclosures has been well-documented in Europe. Via this process that Marx referred to as "primitive accumulation," land held communally, largely through informal systems of governance, is converted into private property. Via a similar process today, the knowledge commons, of which lokavidya is a large and important part, are being enclosed for profit. The transformation of knowledge from communally held lokavidya to privately held patents and copyrights in underway and has been underway for a long time.
Enclosures destroyed self-sufficiency in land use. Does the new system of Knowledge Management destroy self-sufficiency in knowledge production and use? Restoration of self-sufficiency in land use, i.e. land reform, though it became a revolutionary call in the context of highly unequal distribution of land-ownership, really amounts just to redistribution with the existing private property regime. So also the demand for patents and copyrights for lokavidya is appearing as a progressive cry when it only entails a wider, more equitable application of the same private property regime in the Knowledge domain. The land enclosures in Europe were as much about creating property rights as about consolidating and concentrating those right in a smaller number of hands. Do lokavidya enclosures follow a similar pattern? Will a call for IPRs for lokavidya be revolutionary in the current context, or will it merely strengthen the current trend towards increasing commodification of Knowledge? This is an important question that proponents and supporters of lokavidya must answer for themselves.

Can we imagine alternatives that go beyond both: lokavidya freely available for appropriation and lokavidya protected via IPRs?

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