Rajshree Chandra

Knowledge as Property

Issues in the Moral Grounding of Intellectual Property Rights

University Press 2010

New Books in Global Ethics and PoliticsNew Books in LawNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books Network August 4, 2011 Anna Dolidze

Copyright is one of those topics over which even two saints disagreed. The legend has it that Saint Columba and Saint Finnian engaged in...

Copyright is one of those topics over which even two saints disagreed. The legend has it that Saint Columba and Saint Finnian engaged in an argument as Columba had secretly, and without the latter’s permission, copied a Latin Psalter owned by Finnian. When Finnian found out about it, he requested the copy, but Columbia refused to give it back. Dermott, the King of Ireland, decreed “to every cow belong its calf, so to every book belong its copy.”

In 1925 the former Assistant Register of Copyrights in the United States, Richard De Wolf, pointed out that “the progress of copyright law does not take place by revolutions, but by successive stages. It resembles the growth of a city, in which, as time goes on, some parts are torn down and others are devoted to new uses..” However, this process has been historically riddled with controversy and disagreement, and not only among saints.

Authorship rights and other questions related to the intellectual property became issues of major importance with the advent of the industrial revolution, in particular, with the advancement of printing technologies. Even figures like Charles Dickens were concerned with the free circulation of British books abroad. English statutes to protect intellectual property were adopted as early as in 1624. As the international legal mechanisms protecting intellectual property have solidified, the critique, mainly emanating from the global south, about its monopolizing and exclusionary nature has intensified as well.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights contains provisions regarding the protection of private property as well as intellectual property. In particular, Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides that “everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.”

But is it proper to think of the world of ideas and knowledge, the world, which as Rajshree Chandra argues, is inexhaustible and socially distributed, in the same way as we think of the world of tangibles such as clothes, cars, or houses? And what are the main problems associated with relying on normative justifications for private property while we consider moral underpinnings of property rights over knowledge? And if indeed the moral groundings of the right to intellectual property are the same as those of the right to the ownership of property, what conclusions should be made from the distributional consequences of the transnational enforcement of these rights?

Chandra takes up all these questions and more in her fine new book Knowledge as Property, Issues in the Moral Grounding of Intellectual Property Rights (Oxford University Press, 2010).

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