The problem of IP: SOPA, PIPA, development economics and Down Under

The whole world has been going a bit crazy over the issue of Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) bills that have been proposed for voting in US Congress. As you might know, Wikipedia and reddit closed down their sites for 24 hours and many other prominent web hubs have expressed their concerns regarding the potential for these bills to censor the Internet. It looks like the actions of these sites have signalled the death knell for these bills, but it is worrying that they even saw the light of day.

While my knowledge on these two bills is fairly limited, a facebook debate with a friend of mine made me recall some of the great work of development economist Ha-Joon Chang, and his arguments against strict intellectual property (IP) regimes in relation to developing nations.

His article, Strong IP regime not in interest of developing countries, published on the Third World Network distills many of his core arguments.

He rejects the neoliberal view that strong IP regimes are requisite for promoting strong economies, increasing innovation and promoting growth, arguing instead that new knowledge doesn’t necessarily evolve due to patent regulations, using the open-source technology movement as one principle example. He rails against the pharmacuetical industry and their profiteering on the back of overpriced medicines, nothing that many of the ideas used to create these drugs originating from research in public institutions, like universities. It’s an interesting read.

(I’d also recommend having a read of his booking Kicking Away the Ladder: Development Strategy in Historical Perspective for a fascinating historical investigation of how the strategies used by Western powers to retain their economic power over developing nations. Patent law comes in for a right ol’ kicking here, and, while it might not convince the most hardened patent fans, it’s still very well written.)

My own view is somewhat muddled and somewhat limited by my lack of knowledge of IP law. I find myself drawn to arguments against strict IP regimes, but I also value incentives to innovate. I am, however, firmly against censorship of the Internet and am convinced the MPAA is taking the easy way out. Indeed, failure to innovate on behalf of record companies and film companies seems to me to be a bigger reason for piracy. In this case, perhaps IP is hindering innovation.

John Quiggin has also put forth some interesting analysis on the current SOPA/PIPA debate.

An aside

I’m reminded of the famous Down Under copyright case, where Australian group Men At work were sued by an entity known as Larrikin Music for allegedly stealing part of the famous Australian song ‘Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree’. Now Larrikin Music didn’t have anything to do with ever creating this song (which was written by Marion Sinclair in 1935), yet had obtained the IP rights to Kookaburra, then sued Men At Work for copyright infringement because the flute riff in ‘Down Under’ sounded similar. Clearly a case of IP gone mad.