Public goods, personal rights

THE BRANCH debated the ethics of "intellectual property" at the House of Commons on 11 February. Sixty people came for a stimulating discussion that ranged over all three branches of IP - copyright, patents and even trademarks.

Alan Simpson MP opened by confessing a personal interest in copyright and the like. His son hopes to be an actor, and Alan hopes that repeat fees from day jobs like ads and bits of children's TV will help to pay the bills, so he doesn't have to.

He also feels a political interest in waiving fees for his own articles: "the problem for the radical left is to get any platform at all in which alternative ideas can get seen." Getting such ideas past the gatekeepers at the Guardian is like "the shipment of intellectual contraband" to Eastern Europe that the historian E P Thompson described in the 1980s.

More fundamentally, "Why should people pay for configurations of words?" Clearly, book authors should be paid, but what about short articles? He can see that there's a dividing line - but not where it is.

The abuse of intellectual property that Alan is most concerned about, though, is the granting of patent rights on biotechnology. This depends on an "enormous con" - the re-branding of discovery as invention. When, for example, biotechnologists discovered a gene central to inherited forms of breast cancer, that ought to have been released as a public good.

Yes, science is driven by competitiveness and personal kudos - and also by the desire to heal. Already, patenting of genes involved in breast cancer has made some diagnostic tests prohibitively expensive. "Broad spectrum" patents are worse. Monsanto obtained one on all genetically modified cotton in Europe and the USA.

Patenting people is worse still. Alan said there's a people in Brazil who  have no breast cancer at all - so a company has patented the cell lines of all the women. Were they asked? No. Will they get a share in revenues from any commercial products? No.

"What the world needs for the 21st century," he concluded, "is to reclaim the notion of public goods," along the lines of "probably the greatest gift of my lifetime - the National Health Service" He described that as "an act of common solidarity, gifting things from one generation to another, to people we have no knowledge of, knowing that there will be enough in the common pot."

The challenge of the 21st century, he said, will be the struggle between that vision and corporate domination of everything.

Joyce McMillan's skills as a political columnist were challenged by the call to explain "the connection between soya beans and the words you write or the pictures you take". Alan would be pleased to know that freelances are among the doughtiest battlers in the entire scene against the corporate grab of rights that should be part of a person's identity.

"There's a big question as to whether corporations are suitable holders of rights in any form of intellectual or creative production." She was sure that all present would support his opposition to the "current vogue for patenting things that should not be patented, aspects of nature that should be a common treasury for all."

Often the rights which they seek to own are other people's rights - extorted from them through the threat of loss of work. Corporate power is indeed being used to rob people of their rights.

To say that journalism is a mere "configuration of words" is to say that the people doing it are not putting any individual stamp on the work. If journalism is regarded only as raw material that can be chopped up and reconfigured, it loses all relationship with the person whose word you're supposed to take that it's a fair report. And if independent journalists can't get income from their work, the variety of voices and the status of the voices reflected back to public through media is restricted.

Vincent Cable MP, the Liberal Democrat spokesperson on intellectual property issues, revealed that his son is already a starving opera singer. Vincent mentioned the free market economists who argue against IP on the ideological grounds that it's a monopoly. But, as the US Constitution recognises, invention and creativity move faster where creators are rewarded.

He has introduced a Private Member's Bill introducing criminal penalties for breaching the "design right" - for example, selling knock-off designer kit.

Serena Tierney is a trade-mark lawyer and adviser on these issues to the LibDems. She has a lot of sympathy with the continental "civil law" view that moral rights are integral to the actual human creator. But maintaining the "right of integrity" as something that can't be waived or transmitted wouldn't necessarily lead to a greater variety of voices - publishers can still say "we won't publish that". Like Vincent, she regards patents as vital to stimulate research.

A lively debate among members concluded that fundamental changes are likely to take, as Joyce McMillan put it, "more like a generation than a decade." But "starting from such a low base in the UK and Ireland, it should be possible to score some successes on at least a few points in the next decade."

Summing up, Alan said he saw a parallel with the end of feudalism, which was accomplished by people claiming personal rights, for example to own the crops that they produced themselves.

Where would we find the solidarity of producers of ideas? What about forming creators' co-ops, like farmers' co-ops? What if no patented work was entitled to public subsidy? Or if rules on tax for TV companies penalised re-runs or rewarded new works with fair payments to authors and performers?

Joyce accepted the importance of gifting - "We know how the most rewarding moments are when we get some feedback" - but "In order to give, you have to have some integrity of ownership in the first place."

Last modified: 25 March 2002 - © 2002 contributors
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