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Knowledge is power

Self-interest shaped the global agreement on intellectual-property rights.

Information Feudalism: Who Owns the Knowledge Economy?

  • Peter Drahos &
  • John Braithwaite
Earthscan: 2002. 254 pp. £35 (hbk); £12, £10.80 online (pbk)

Access for the poor and sick to patented medicines for infectious diseases. 'Pirating' of software and music CDs. Traditional knowledge in developing countries. These issues command the attention of both the media and politicians in the world's leading economic fora. They are all regulated by TRIPS (the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights), which was probably the most important agreement for the protection of inventions in the twentieth century. Its legacy is all around us.

One of the 28 agreements that made up the Uruguay round of the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT), TRIPS was signed by more than 100 countries in 1994. In essence, it extends the standards for the protection of intellectual property from developed countries to the developing world. The adoption of patent systems and copyright protection were agreed by emerging economies such as those of India, China and Brazil, which are masters of electronic and pharmaceutical copying, as well as by some of the world's poorest countries, which have filed very few, if any, patents.

Nearly ten years on — as the developing world faces the ravages of HIV, malaria and tuberculosis, reducing life expectancy from 65 to 39 years in Zimbabwe, and as increases in crop yields level off — tough questions are being asked about the economic and moral obligations of the richer countries to share their intellectual and financial capital. The advance of the 'knowledge economy' in industrialized and emerging nations means that having a competitive advantage increasingly depends on the management and understanding of information.

Arguments over the freedom of researchers, entrepreneurs and industrialists to use such information are not new. They have been fiercely debated in the UK Parliament, the US Congress and other legislatures for over two centuries. Perspectives on the use of scientific knowledge have depended in part on what we seek to do with it. We may argue that the more widely scientific knowledge is used, the greater is its value, because each user gains something at little or no cost. As a result, society will benefit from this public good. But many products that incorporate scientific knowledge, including medicines, can easily be copied at a fraction of the cost, thanks to savings in R&D and marketing. The need to provide a system of incentives to investors in the companies that originated a product has led the development of complex systems of legal protection.

Today's global agreements have been shaped by the way in which past governments and industries have sought to control the use of knowledge in the context of innovation to protect national and corporate interests. In Information Feudalism, Peter Drahos and John Braithwaite paint a deeply unflattering picture of the behaviour of major corporations over the past century. They describe how US corporations in particular, no longer able to secure monopolies by operating lucrative cartels in commodities because of the introduction of antitrust laws, have turned to the patent system to control and segment markets.

Drahos and Braithwaite argue that developments over the past 30 years are driving us dangerously towards a system that they refer to as information feudalism. They draw parallels between medieval feudalism, with its inequality of property ownership, and the exercise of monopolistic power over knowledge assets.

Central to this analysis is the account of the negotiation of TRIPS, whereby the campaign for globalized intellectual-property standards was shifted to the international trade agenda. Developing countries were persuaded to sign up to TRIPS in exchange for the liberalization of world trade markets. The subsequent failure of these markets to materialize (witness US steel tariffs and farm subsidies in the United States and Europe) also goes some way to explaining the growing disenchantment with TRIPS.

The authors undoubtedly have a story to tell. Many of the historical facts make interesting reading. The treatment meted out to early 'pirates' — an astonishing 40% of the inmates in the Bastille during the 1750s had offences connected to the book trade — and the complex history of patents and copyright and their effects on free trade form the backdrop for the globalization of corporations and the rise of the information age in the twentieth century. This book is not a technical account of the world's intellectual-property systems; rather, it is about the exercise of power and politics that led to the adoption of TRIPS.

Drahos and Braithwaite are intensely critical, indeed scathing, about the alleged motives of multinationals, particularly in the pharmaceutical and IT sectors, in getting the issue of global standards for intellectual-property rights onto the global trade agenda. The chapter that describes the United States' aggressive behaviour in investigating, by means of its 'Special 301' list, and applying bilateral pressure to those countries that did not conform to its standards of intellectual property, will raise the eyebrows of many a reader.

Much of the history of intellectual-property rights is, to say the least, ironic. Britain, much of continental Europe and the United States have over the past decade supported the global extension of their intellectual-property standards in an effort to stamp out the widespread copying of technology in the developing world. Yet these same countries were themselves guilty of using these strategies in the past to further their own economic interests. Until 1891, copyright protection in the United States was restricted to US citizens and, between 1790 and 1836, patents were similarly restricted. The Netherlands and Switzerland also avoided adopting a patent system when industrialists wanted to make use of foreign inventions.

This is not a book for the faint-hearted. General readers may wish to understand why patents and copyright have become prominently linked to such issues as access to medicines in poor countries and the consequences of pirating software and music. But they may become weary as the book traces, often in great detail, how representatives from many industrial, government and other organizations allegedly conspired to manipulate patent and copyright systems to become accomplished operators in the 'knowledge game', to the detriment of the public interest and the developing world.

Those who stay the course will gain a clear insight into why so many non-governmental organizations are furiously lobbying for the removal of TRIPS and for reform of the patent and copyright systems. But they will not discover why many other constituencies, including industry, universities and governments, are broadly in favour of protecting intellectual property. Crucially, evidence of why the patent system has, on balance, almost certainly benefited consumers hardly gets a mention. As a consequence, many of the arguments advanced in the book are seriously flawed.

Neither do the authors get to grips with some of the most important questions in development policy that loom large today: notably, how should the moral and economic responsibility of addressing the burden of disease and food insecurity that affects developing countries be apportioned, and by whom?

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Thomas, S. Knowledge is power. Nature 421, 577–578 (2003). https://doi.org/10.1038/421577a

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/421577a

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