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Academic and author defines information feudalism.

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VIVIAN SCHENKER: In the global shift towards an information society, there’s growing conflict about the ownership of ideas and another divide between the haves and the have nots. Underpinning international rules on intellectual property rights is a World Trade Organisation agreement best known by its acronym, TRIPS. Critics have long argued it supports rich nations and multinationals over the poor, leading to the term ‘information feudalism’.


That was an expression coined by Peter Drahos and is the title of his new book looking at who owns the knowledge economy, and the bleak outlook for the Third World if current rules aren’t radically changed. Peter Drahos is with the Research School of Social Sciences at the Australian National University, and he joins us now from Canberra. Peter, welcome to Breakfast .


PETER DRAHOS: Good morning, Vivian.


VIVIAN SCHENKER: Let’s start with a definition. Information feudalism, what is it?


PETER DRAHOS: It’s about the rules that create new kinds of divides as you introduce them, the ones that you mention in your introduction. The thing about information feudalism is that it creates a new set of inequalities. Inequalities are always with us but the old feudalism was an inequality based on the ownership of land and what we say in this new book is that we’re looking at new kinds of inequalities based on ownership of intangibles—things like the human genome, literature. These things, ideas and knowledge that we need to circulate and that we all need to act on are now being either owned for longer periods of time or where they previously were not owned are now owned.


VIVIAN SCHENKER: And Peter, we said in the introduction as well that a lot of these ideas are at the moment governed by that 1994 agreement under the World Trade Organisation called TRIPS. What exactly is TRIPS? How does it work?


PETER DRAHOS: What TRIPS does is to introduce an element of harmonisation and globalisation into these rules. In the old days the rules were essentially national with some international agreements. What this new agreement does—well, not so new, I guess, as you said 1995 it came into operation—what this agreement does is to introduce a set of principles that every single country who wishes to be a member of the World Trade Organisation must comply with. So that means, for example, that every country must have patents on pharmaceutical products. So whether you’re the United States or whether you’re Rwanda or whether you’re New Guinea, if you want to be a member of the World Trade Organisation you must recognise products on pharmaceuticals. That’s one example of what TRIPS does.


VIVIAN SCHENKER: And how does that work, say in a country like Africa?


PETER DRAHOS: I don’t think it works very well. Clearly, if you’re a wealthy economy and you have very good pharmaceutical companies doing lots of research, it makes sense to have patents on pharmaceutical products. If you’re a poor country such as, for example, Rwanda or Ethiopia or whatever, and you don’t have a pharmaceutical industry, it makes very little sense to invest time and money in the patent system. What you want, essentially, is access to cheap drugs. So the answer to your question is: it doesn’t work very well.


VIVIAN SCHENKER: Essentially your argument is that it really only works well for America.


PETER DRAHOS: We have some econometric modelling of who gains from this particular agreement. What economists have done is to look at where the royalties from intellectual property flow and which countries benefit. What that data shows is that the United States is way out ahead of any other country, even Europe. It follows that if the US is way out ahead of Europe it’s way out ahead of the rest of the world, including the poor countries.


VIVIAN SCHENKER: You go actually further than saying it’s just countries like particularly the United States as you’ve just said and to a slightly lesser extent the other developed countries that benefit. You’ve actually gone as far as to say that there is a loss of human rights for the other countries. It enhances and perpetuates underdevelopment.


PETER DRAHOS: That’s right. We say that ultimately intellectual property, as the rules are currently constituted, is about an agenda of underdevelopment. It’s about keeping an old hierarchy in place. In the old days we had colonies and these things were kept in place through gun boats and so on. What we have now is a kind of gun boat diplomacy related to knowledge and ideas, and these things are perpetuating, in one sense, old inequalities but now new techniques, as it were.


VIVIAN SCHENKER: And what would you do about that, Peter? Clearly you need ... I suppose I should really start by: Do you need intellectual property rights at all?


PETER DRAHOS: Interestingly that’s one question that people are increasingly asking themselves. It may seem like a very radical thing to ask, because these things have been around for hundreds of years, and yet we now know that the benefits are very unequally distributed. If we just take copyright, for example. Who really benefits from copyright? What the studies show is that maybe 100 top international pop artists get the benefit of the copyright system, yet most artists, whether they’re musical or other, are really struggling to make any money out of the copyright system. So I think it is a question worth asking, the one that you’ve asked: Do we really need intellectual property rights?


VIVIAN SCHENKER: And what do you think? Is the very concept an elitist concept?


PETER DRAHOS: I think the answer is we certainly need a very new set of rules. I think we need rules that reflect better the contributions of artists, but not just an elite group of artists. What we need is a system of intellectual property rights that enables a lot more people to enter the creative game. And I think that’s true also for indigenous groups, for example, who have a lot of knowledge that relates to pharmaceutical products, that have folk lore traditions. Those sorts of traditions are not recognised under the existing rules. So I think the answer is we do need intellectual property rights but ones that are driven by human rights considerations, not ones that are driven by corporate lobbyists.


VIVIAN SCHENKER: And the tough question of course is: Do you think there’s any chance at all that the people who benefit so greatly from the current regulations are likely to even think about the sorts of changes you’re talking about?


PETER DRAHOS: Of course, corporations are not likely to give up very valuable assets easily, but nevertheless I think even ... for example if we just take pharmaceutical companies, I think they’re beginning to realise as a result of things like the prescription drugs crisis in the United States and the enormous impact of patents on the costs of medicines, that unless they begin to rethink the way in which they do business that eventually, in the longer run, consumers just won’t put up with it. I think you will have a lot of consumer disillusionment. Take, for example, the NAPSTA debate. I think there are a lot of young people who are not particularly passionate about the recording industry staff in that area. In all sorts of areas, the intellectual property applies. I think we can begin to see a growing disillusionment. So obviously it’s a long-run game, but I think there is a sort of debate emerging about these issues.


VIVIAN SCHENKER: Peter, good to speak with you this morning; thank you. Peter Drahos from the School of Social Sciences at the Australian National University. And his book International feudalism—who owns the knowledge economy? , which he wrote with John Braithwaite, is published by Earthscan.