The ongoing battle for access to knowledge

Copyrights, trademarks, patents, trade secrets: these are only some of the legal means of obtaining exclusive rights to creations of the mind, or, more specifically, to the ideas and applications based on them.

Such ideas may take the form of literary inspirations, applied in the form of copyrighted novels, or inventive “Eureka!” moments, embodied in a patented gadget. It may even be an idea for a recipe, such as the "secret ingredient" in Pepsi. All are examples of intellectual property (IP) and their owners’ legal right to monopolize their use.

The reasoning behind this is straightforward, if debatable: IP rights allow owners to reap monopoly profits, which, in theory, acts as an incentive for innovation. The inevitable consequence of such motivational measures, however, is a limitation on the public’s access to the product in question. In turn, books, technology and life-saving drugs–and the knowledge of how to make them–are not freely available, and can often come at prices beyond the reach of those who need them most.

One result of this is a rising dependence on black markets, whether in the form of the illicit trading of dubious medicines or by downloading the latest blockbuster films from one of the myriad file-sharing sites online. This in turn has limited the role of IP largely to ensuring the enforcement of the granted rights.

For a team of researchers looking into policies on access to knowledge in Egypt, this common perception of IP rights as a matter of policing is questionable. Instead, they propose that access to knowledge and the role of IP be transformed from mere law enforcement to an aid for maximizing development.

The culmination of these researchers’ work is presented in a recently published book entitled Access to Knowledge in Egypt, edited by American University in Cairo (AUC) Associate Professor of Economics Nagla Rizk and Associate Research Scholar at Yale Law School Lea Shaver. The book surveys a selection of issues about knowledge policy in Egypt, covering topics such as access to medicines, music and software and the role of open source. At its core, this is a volume on the relationship between policies governing the degree of freedom in knowledge distribution–even if in the form information-embedded goods, such as drugs–and development in Egypt.

Marking the publication of Access to Knowledge in Egypt, several of the contributing researchers held an event to discuss their work at AUC earlier this week.

Speaking on the fundamental tension posed by IP laws, Dina Waked–a research associate involved in the volume and an expert on competition law–stated: “On the one hand, you have IP laws, which grant monopolies and allow exclusive rights for using a patent or copyright. On the other, you have competition laws, which help ensure that competition in the market thrives and that monopolies will not arise.”

Waked goes on to explain that this tension comes down to incentives and access, the former protected by IP laws and the latter guaranteed by competition law, which aim to ensure the widespread use of knowledge. “We need to find a balance between the two,” Waked continued. “We need empirical studies showing which of these two fosters more innovation in developing countries: monopolies, with their bountiful R&D, or smaller firms competing?”

While Access to Knowledge in Egypt does not set out to answer this question per se, it does suggest an approach to the problem based on the idea of A2K, or access to knowledge. Here, public policy is coordinated in a manner to ensure that the potential of knowledge-based development is maximized through technologies and business models that help enable information to be shared extensively. It is ultimately a call to promote the growth and distribution of knowledge while fighting off international pressures to adopt tighter IP laws.

An example of such pressures is evident in the pharmaceutical industry, highlighted by Rebecca Wright, a human rights lawyer and one of the main contributors to Access to Knowledge in Egypt. Speaking at AUC, she said: “The Egyptian government is currently doing a good job at providing access to medicine by maintaining relatively low drug prices in Egypt through subsidies and price controls, and also by fostering a thriving generic drugs industry.”

Wright, however, warns that “there is a lot of external pressure, mainly from large multinationals, to bring these prices up and limit the generic industry and increase patent protection.” While Egypt has resisted these pressures so far, future negotiations may see things change.

In her chapter on a human rights approach to access to medicine, co-authored by Hossam Bahgat, the founder and director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, three crucial steps are called for in order for Egypt to become a leader in the movement to resist the pressures of pharmaceutical companies: regular dialogue between ministry officials during free-trade negotiations; ensuring judges are well-trained on human rights principles and how they intersect with trade and IP law; and allowing civil society itself to engage more in IP and trade issues.

Such steps in the near future may seem improbable, but maintaining the status quo–given mounting external pressures–is arguably even less probable.

Ultimately, the goal presented by A2K in this volume is not limited to mere economic development, but inherently ties in questions of human liberty. The premise on which the book is based lies in the fact that the global economy is increasingly driven by the production of knowledge goods and the struggle to control information.

Finding ways to transcend such limitations will be key to future development.

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