Who Owns Ideas? The War Over Global Intellectual Property

Last year, in a South African courtroom, global pharmaceutical firms challenged a law that permitted the manufacture and importation of generic aids drugs. The companies quickly dropped this claim, however, when the defense of their patent rights became a public relations fiasco. Indeed, just prior to last year's World Trade Organization meeting in Doha, Qatar, South Africa's health minister called the high prices for lifesaving medicines a "crime against humanity." Ten thousand miles away in San Francisco, the music industry tried to take down Napster, a service that allowed users to swap digital music files over the Internet. In this case, the courts agreed that Napster's file-sharing technology violated music copyrights. And across the Atlantic, advocates of "software libre" are introducing legislation in several European parliaments to give preferences in government procurement to software that can be freely copied and distributed. The Eurolinux Alliance argues that only free software "preserves privacy, individual liberties, and the right for every citizen to access public information."

Battles such as these are erupting all over the globe. At stake are decisions about how society can best encourage the creation of ideas, when someone can stake a claim to intellectual property, and how far copyright- and patent-holders can go in preventing others from taking their property. The scope of the controversy is vast. It might encompass debates about ownership of the formula for an aids vaccine, a Miles Davis riff, a software algorithm, or a new way of uncorking a wine bottle. Each of these is an idea embodied in physical forms: formulas, notes, code, or drawings are turned into capsules, records, CD-ROMs, or corkscrews. The economic consequences of the dispute are also immense. The resolution of who gets to own what, where, and for how long will determine how much corporations and entrepreneurs invest in creating intellectual property, where they will sell products based on intellectual property protection, and how much they will be able to charge for these products.

BATTLE LINES

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