Intellectual Property and Copyright as “Western” Ideas

Throughout my writing on this site, I have found myself noticing that all of the relevant history has taken place in western countries—mostly the U.S. and U.K. (Presumably similar events were taking place elsewhere.) The initial signatories of the Berne Convention included Haiti and two African countries, but the other seven were all western European countries.* Other conventions on intellectual property were signed during the 20th century that included countries in the global south, but the Berne Convention has replaced them all.

Two of my classmates wrote in their pieces on intellectual property about the interactions they had with intellectual property in other cultures. Mr. Armstrong wrote about piracy in Ukraine, and Mr. Heath wrote about ownership in indigenous cultures. Both perspectives indicate that our western (Germanic?) concept of intellectual property is not necessarily the direct result of our human nature. Perhaps a other paradigms merit our consideration.

Mr. Armstrong wrote about end users in Ukraine making illegal copies of books, music, and software. The rationale seems to be that people cannot afford to pay for these things as much as corporations can suffer losing a small sliver of profit. What harm is there in a little copying? The opinion is exactly the opposite when an artist’s work is used without license, for a profit. The purpose, thus, of intellectual property seems to be to assure that artists get their just reward, not to protect corporations commoditizing art—or anything else. Coming back to the United States, Mr. Armstrong sees the same intellectual property problems here: as an example, text book prices are prohibitively high. In a comment on his post, our classmate Ms Fifarek notes the counter-productivity of intellectual property: intending to encourage science and innovation, copyright is hampering learning. The sense of the common good seems to be lost in profits.

Mr. Heath considers the interaction of very different worlds. In many indigenous cultures, intellectual property is not owned by an individual but something received and passed on. Ownership and copyright protection are extremely difficult to define if there is no individual author or artist involved. Who can grant licenses to use native art? Whose death starts the clock for releasing something into the Public Domain, if the next generation is still producing that thing in new ways?

Both experiences beg questions about who owns rights to intellectual property and how it ought to be licensed for the common good. Both point to the danger of corporate copyright holders commoditizing intellectual property so that neither the artist nor the user is served. Mr. Armstrong brushes up against the issue of licensing, but Mr. Heath shows how even that is not a universally effective solution. I wonder if our system needs more flexibility—exactly the opposite of what has been achieved through the Berne Convention and WIPO—to allow for direct relationships between creators and users.


* To be fair to Africa, the Berne Convention was only a year after the Berlin Conference, which was the opposite of fair to Africa. In fact, six of the original ten signatories to the Berne Convention were parties to the Berlin Conference.

Thinking about this project

I decided to pull together most of the activities for Collection III into one large post. In doing so, I ended up adding some work to make the whole thing flow together. I’m still not sure it’s finished, and I’m afraid I may have sacrificed some quality along the way. The best and worst part of this project for me was the reading: the required reading was long, but filling in around it led to some interesting places.

I wrote my piece on IP over a year ago, and as I finish the rest of this Collection, I find myself returning to my views then. Intellectual Property is both a protection for the artist and a device for removing itself from its rightful owner. Working through the history of copyright and the ideas of Fair Use and the Creative Commons, and then reading some of my classmates’ work, I am more convinced that the current system must evolve. The commoditization of ideas defeats the purpose of intellectual property and fails to serve the common good. Ownership, I believe, should remain with the creator, offering the creator the opportunity to license their ideas as they see fit. I think that the Creative Commons movement is a step in the right direction.