War for control of knowledge
Rumina Sethi

Intellectual Property Rights and Communications in Asia.
Ed. Pradip Ninan Thomas and
Jan Servaes. Sage, New Delhi.
Pages 262. Rs. 595.

This Thomas and Servaes’ book begins on a derisive note: "Intellectual property rights, trade-related intellectual property, patents—these terms sound technical, even boring". Indeed, they do, which is why this book had been lying on my table for a while and I had been a little reluctant to approach it. But, the authors’ own submission proved to be an encouragement and I found myself avidly reading the book, which turned out to be immensely readable.

The collection of essays in this volume is a sharp criticism of the unavailability of knowledge even to a need-based end. Why must one have to pay for knowledge in a civil society instead of the liberal practice of distributing ideas freely for the betterment of society? The ownership of intellectual property (IP) has, in recent years, led to the setting up of barriers to the free distribution of knowledge, a development that is injurious to transformation programmes and endeavours. Trade regimes and the utilitarian state rest on the principle of exclusion and exclusivity, which shoves people-centred dreams of renovating their economic and social world to the region of frustration and despair.

Copyrights, patents and trade markets are often enclosures of power, unwilling to give out any help by way of knowledge to those who need it. For instance, the enforcement of copyrights as well as disagreements over medical and software patents have, so far, prevented the emergence of a cohesive international system. The World Trade Organisation (WTO) or the agreement on trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights (TRIPS) have not yet been successful in evolving a world where all knowledge can be shared.

The TRIPS agreement of the WTO, according to Daya Shanker, one of the contributors, "recognises in its preamble and Article 8.1 the abuses and distortions that can be created by IP monopolies. In certain respects, the TRIPS agreement, particularly its patenting and copyright provisions, has become an instrument of international market control and exclusion". Most judicial systems, and especially the US, are of the view that intellectual rights are the property of the state rather than a fundamental right held by citizens.

One significant essay by Roberto Verzola looks at the emerging information economy, where the information sector has superseded the industrial sector. Information and communication technologies are used "for generating, manipulating, distributing and using information". It is apparent that information created at the level of research or development turns out to be far more expensive than merely reproducing it, especially in a digitally dominated world, where the cost of copying is very low. The pertinent question at the heart of the matter is: "If information is freely shared, who will buy it at a high price"? Verzola goes on to ask, "If one can get it for free, why pay for it at all"?

Copyrights and patents prohibit free sharing and, thus, turn intellectual property rights into ‘information monopolies’. It has to be understood that as profits are maximum in the information sector, investments are tempted to move from the "industrial and agricultural sectors to the information sector". Such a shift is widely rampant in the US, which is "the key player in the globalisation and standardisation of intellectual property rights".

The book, thus, brings together scholars, lawyers, media experts, journalists and social activists in a kind of a symposium, that draws attention to this deeply significant issue of public concern within multilateral trade and communications. It is, undeniably, a national economic policy of the US and, as a result, "the source of numerous contemporary intellectual property legislations at global, regional and national levels".

The countries in Asia, particularly, have been modifying their IP frameworks to strike a balance between adjusting with global standards as well as enabling themselves to offer full backing to indigenous and national interests. As the two editors maintain in their preface, such efforts at "balancing IP policy are fraught with risks, given the many exogenous pressures to liberalise markets and to create ‘level’ playing fields".

The book consists of some perceptive and analytical essays, such as those by Kamal Puri on indigenous knowledge and its relevance to intellectual property rights, and Thomas and Servaes’ concluding essay on intellectual property rights and communications. Other subjects that are taken up in the book include copyright and culture in China, Australian sport and property rights and IP contestations in India. The editors have to be given full credit for putting together such analytical and informative essays on a subject that is of immense relevance to the economic wars that are raging in the world today.