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IPR Hypocrisy

John Mangun wrote a sharp article on Intellectual Property Rights, and it really got my goat. In it, he talks about a man named Oman, a lecturer on IPR at George Washington University. He quotes Oman:

As countries become richer, IPR protection increases. Mr. Oman’s thesis is that it is in the long-term economic interest for nations like the Philippines to protect IPR early because it is in the best interests of its own creative people. Absolutely correct.

I would agree if the world were a fair place where our ‘creative people’ could actually compete on equal footing with their creative people – and no, I am not talking about talent. Talent-wise, we are as good as anyone, maybe even better than most. But the truth is, with the way the world is wired, translating talent to actual content (or intellectual property) worth protecting often requires access to tools that are someone else’s intellectual property. And using that shit costs money.

Consider an author. He has a humdinger of novel in his head, but he can’t afford genuine word-processing software. He uses a typewriter instead. But the publishers don’t accept typewritten works anymore. Everyone worth calling a publisher insists on getting a soft-copy of the work. How the heck is our author gonna get published, let alone get exposure in the world market? The immediately self-evident answer is that he finds a computer and not care about whether it’s running genuine software and hammer out his masterpiece. In the process of generating a good work – and in that small way contributing to the intellectual wealth of his country – our intrepid author also ironically adds to the impression that we are a nation of IP pirates. Ya’ can’t win.

A lot of the IP being zealously protected by IPR holders involve threshold technologies – tech that allows you to cross-over from day dreamer to content producer. And it’s not just computers either. Med schools regularly prescribe texts originally published by foreign authors. But those things are wicked expensive. So expensive, in fact, that med school is attended mostly by upper income bracket students. Sure, once in awhile, a kid from the slums makes in on a scholarship. Yay. But that’s almost like tokenism; it doesn’t make a significant impact. And even if the poor student is actually in med school, his whole family has to go into hock just to buy him his books. Bye-bye farm animals; hello decreased earning capacity.

Mangun offers this other tidbit about his encounter with Oman.

I asked Mr. Oman about China being the No. 1 violator of IPR and always making the excuse that their country is poor, developing and deserving more time.

Mr. Oman related that the US hopes to have a $500 million a year fine levied on China for its violations of IPR.

What a class act this Oman is. He totally ignores the argument that the country is poor, developing, and deserving of more time, and jumps right to the big stick that all soft (and oh-so-reasonable) speakers like him carry. We’re gonna fine them Chinks, yessiree Bob.

Or maybe that’s what he means when he says it’s in our best interest to respect their IP. If we don’t, they slap fines on us. That’ll teach us our place, won’t it John?

It is ironic that these countries big on IP protection should be so heavy handed with developing countries like ours.

Its not like they were always as big as they are now. They started out as small, developing countries themselves, and they clawed their way to the top as the world turned. And in doing that, they weren’t pristine. England adopted a privateering as a matter of national policy, to enable it to match the wealth and power of the Spanish empire. Most European countries traveled half-way around the world to build their country’s fortunes on the backs of the indigenous peoples in their colonies. They brought disease, and war. They committed genocide; their policies of greed wrought great environmental destruction and the death of species. No one says it anymore, but there was a time when “Dead as a Dodo” was a common expression. But when the same people whose depradations caused the extinction of the Dodo developed a conscience, all of a sudden, Dead as a dodo became politically incorrect.

And now, after having risen to the position of prominence, they want us to do as they say, but not as they have done. Now, developing countries have to exercise the kind of restraint they never showed. We need to respect rights that were never respected when the colonies were the ones demanding them. All that echoes in this current discussion about intellectual property rights.

And no, I don’t think its provincial or backward to remind bigwigs of their past indiscretions.

I think developing countries like ours have to take a more forceful stand on the issue of IPR. Just off the top of my head, I imagine we can push for the relaxation of IPR rules on threshold technologies, but keep them as they are for the entertainment field. It’ll be good to clamp down on the influx of foreign movies and music anyway, to give our culture a chance to grow on its own rather than degenerate into a culture of mimicry.

Re-enact the re-printing law that Marcos instituted. Make it a condition for publishers wanting to penetrate this market that they should make locally re-printed versions available at half-price alongside their expensive glossy originals.

On the other hand, we should be absolutely rabid in the protection of whatever IP we do have. That guy’s technology for putting fish to sleep for transport over long distances? Who’s looking after that guy’s patents? What about all those mobile-phone based transactions our telcos have been introducing? Sure, they’re just better and more efficient ways to part people from their money, but those are damned good ideas. Are they patentable? Are those patents being protected?

And what about our rain forests, eh? Government should sponsor research teams to comb these forests looking for medicinal plants that can be used as bases for modern meds. A long time ago, I remember someone saying that they found cancer-fighting properties in a plant called ‘chichirica.’ I have no idea what the hell that is, but if the claim has been made, has it been verified? If that’s true, that’s something else we can protect. And what about that kid who made a study on the venom of some sea snails? Can that be parlayed into some modern drug? Or even weaponized?

And there should be no guilt about asking for leniency from others while being strict in the protection of our own IPR. There should be no parity in that respect, because there is no parity in any other respect. And if they don’t want to give us the leniency we need, I say we take what we want, and let the fines fall where they may. There can be no monopoly on knowledge or good ideas after all, especially if it’s for the good of the country.

Mangun finishes up his excellent article by saying:

Yet, the IPR issue is not going to go away and protecting those rights is another step that the Philippines and we consumers must forcefully take to increase our stature and respectability in the world market. Simply put, violating IPR is cheating and stealing. And no nation or people can live with that kind of reputation forever.

I beg to differ. Stature and respectability are matters of form. They should be the concerns only of those who are comfortable enough that they don’t need to worry about how to make money. Not worried about such trivial things as survival, they can worry about looking good while raking in the loot. That should not be the concern of developing countries.

And it is true that no nation or people can live with the reputation of being IP cheats and thieves forever. But we can live with it until we don’t have to anymore.

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Filed under: international, musings,

5 Responses

  1. cvj says:

    Both your analysis and illustrations are spot on! Korean economist Ha Joon Chang calls the practice by rich (and newly rich) countries to ‘do as i say, not as i have done’ as ‘kicking away the ladder’. (Just a favor, can you have a ‘click to enlarge’ option on the diagrams as my eyesight is not as good as before.)

  2. BrianB says:

    These rich countries reminds me of rich Filipinos. Now, why can’t the poor steal and murder their way to riches? Why?

  3. Jeg says:

    Holy mother of pearl, smoke. If you run for president in 2010, I’ll definitely vote for you. I’ll even vote for you even if you dont run.

  4. Mona says:

    My family and I have been discussing this sort of thing for some time, and your entry pretty much sums up what we think. Among things we discussed over the dinner table recently:

    My mother is up in arms about Philippine medicinal plants being “patented” by Western scientists as though any future development or use from them would yield profits only for Big Pharma. Sure, research costs a lot. Do they want to prevent other research or applications on the same biological sources? Would they be doing research for profit, or to actually help the people who need it? Face it, we’re paying higher rates for medicines while India doesn’t. And we still suffer from things like medicine and medical waste dumping.

    As for us… we recently learned to migrate to Linux and OpenOffice and all those open source software. The cost of software can keep access to technology away from the people it can benefit. There is nothing wrong about software development as a business, but when it becomes monopolistic, people need to be wary.

    Thanks for this, smoke.

  5. rom says:

    mona: welcome to the smoking room! No prob. 😀 As for medical research, my mom tells me that an antibiotic brand – Ilosone – was created by the pharma company Lily from bacteria found only in the soil of Iloilo (in Panay). Hence ILO-sone. Seems like the Philippines (much less Iloilo) get any action from that globally marketed brand. How fair is that?

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