Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Keep CounterPunch ad free. Support our annual fund drive today!

Pirates of the Caribbean


Members of the World Trade Organization worry that their Sept. 10-14 meeting in Cancun, Mexico, might turn into a rerun of the tumultuous Seattle gathering in 1999. To defuse one of several high-profile controversies, the United States agreed to relax some pharmaceutical patents so poor countries could produce or import inexpensive generic drugs to fight AIDS and other diseases. But when the compromise reached the WTO’s General Council, it promptly fell apart under the weight of additional demands by several member nations. The deal may still go through before Cancun, but independent aid groups were already calling the proposal a sham. A representative of the relief agency Oxfam said the deal was “watered down so much that it isn’t really anything to cheer about.”

For months, trade representatives from the United States, prodded by the pharmaceutical industry, have demanded that U.S. patents on lifesaving drugs be enforced in all countries, rich or poor. Meanwhile, Congress connected patented drugs with patented corn and soybeans by passing President Bush’s Global AIDS Initiative. Somewhat jarringly, the new program links medical assistance for AIDS-stricken countries to their acceptance of food aid produced from genetically engineered crops.

Seed and pharmaceutical companies, which are intertwined in what they like to call the “life sciences” industry, sell many products that can be reproduced cheaply and on a huge scale. They share that problem with the software and entertainment businesses. Without governments and international bodies like the WTO to back up their patents, all of these industries could say goodbye to their hefty profits.

The stormier the world economy, the more big business insists on claiming information — both humanity’s and nature’s — as its own property. The fewer tangible goods that corporations are able to sell abroad, the more they depend on the sale of ideas, words, symbols, knowledge and brands. And once price tags are attached to these intangibles, sharing them is redefined as piracy.

Every year, we Americans import and consume more of the kinds of goods you can actually lay your hands on, like clothes and appliances — and, of course, oil. Our annual balance-of-trade deficit has swollen alarmingly in the past decade to around $400 billion — the equivalent of importing the entire economy of India every twelve months.

That deficit would be a lot bigger without the continued broadening of intellectual property rights. In the words of Michael Perelman of California State University, Chico, “Intellectual property rights have become the financial counterweight to deindustrialization (in the United States), because the revenues they generate help to balance the massive imports of material goods.”

When cracking down on pirated DVDs and shoes marked with a stolen “swoosh” becomes a cornerstone of our global economic strategy, we’re in trouble. And it’s downright embarrassing when the world’s only superpower tries to pay for its bloated consumption by extracting seed and medicine royalties from some of the world’s hungriest and sickest people.

The uninhibited flow of information is a long human tradition It has been crucial to seed, drug and computer companies, among others. They didn’t pull their ideas and data out of thin air. The information they call private property has its roots in taxpayer-funded research. University and government researchers, in turn, draw on centuries of ideas hatched by others. The information that nature encoded in patented genes is far more ancient.

The Constitution views patents as a way to spur creativity, not block access to the basics of life. And that distinction is becoming more crucial. The Earth’s inhabitants will face serious scarcities in the decades to come. Because of these limits on matter and energy, we must let information follow its natural tendency to move and multiply freely. To keep the planet livable, we’ll need to draw on the entire pool of human knowledge, as well as the plant, animal and microbial gene pools that, until recently, were our common inheritance.

People risk being hunted down as pirates when they share music files, save seed from patented crops or bring back a suitcase full of medicines from Mexico. But, whatever their legal status, these are strictly small-time activities. You’ll find the big-time pirates operating openly starting Sept. 10 along the coast at Cancun.

STAN COX is a member of the Prairie Writers Circle and senior research scientist at the Land Institute in Salina, Kan. From 1984 to 1996, he was a plant geneticist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.


Stan Cox is a senior scientist at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas and author most recently of Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present, and Future of Rationing (The New Press, 2013). Contact him at

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine


Weekend Edition
October 21, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Wight
Hillary Clinton and the Brutal Murder of Gaddafi
Diana Johnstone
Hillary Clinton’s Strategic Ambition in a Nutshell
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Trump’s Naked and Hillary’s Dead
John W. Whitehead
American Psycho: Sex, Lies and Politics Add Up to a Terrifying Election Season
Stephen Cooper
Hell on Earth in Alabama: Inside Holman Prison
Patrick Cockburn
13 Years of War: Mosul’s Frightening and Uncertain Future
Rob Urie
Name the Dangerous Candidate
Pepe Escobar
The Aleppo / Mosul Riddle
David Rosen
The War on Drugs is a Racket
Sami Siegelbaum
Once More, the Value of the Humanities
Cathy Breen
“Today Is One of the Heaviest Days of My Life”
Neve Gordon
Israel’s Boycott Hypocrisy
Mark Hand
Of Pipelines and Protest Pens: When the Press Loses Its Shield
Victor Wallis
On the Stealing of U.S. Elections
Michael Hudson
The Return of the Repressed Critique of Rentiers: Veblen in the 21st century Rentier Capitalism
Brian Cloughley
Drumbeats of Anti-Russia Confrontation From Washington to London
Howard Lisnoff
Still Licking Our Wounds and Hoping for Change
Brian Gruber
Iraq: There Is No State
Peter Lee
Trump: We Wish the Problem Was Fascism
Stanley L. Cohen
Equality and Justice for All, It Seems, But Palestinians
Steve Early
In Bay Area Refinery Town: Berniecrats & Clintonites Clash Over Rent Control
Kristine Mattis
All Solutions are Inadequate: Why It Doesn’t Matter If Politicians Mention Climate Change
Peter Linebaugh
Ron Suny and the Marxist Commune: a Note
Andre Vltchek
Sudan, Africa and the Mosaic of Horrors
Keith Binkly
The Russians Have Been Hacking Us For Years, Why Is It a Crisis Now?
Jonathan Cook
Adam Curtis: Another Manager of Perceptions
Ted Dace
The Fall
Sheldon Richman
Come and See the Anarchy Inherent in the System
Susana Hurlich
Hurricane Matthew: an Overview of the Damages in Cuba
Dave Lindorff
Screwing With and Screwing the Elderly and Disabled
Chandra Muzaffar
Cuba: Rejecting Sanctions, Sending a Message
Dennis Kucinich
War or Peace?
Joseph Natoli
Seething Anger in the Post-2016 Election Season
Jack Rasmus
Behind The 3rd US Presidential Debate—What’s Coming in 2017
Ron Jacobs
A Theory of Despair?
Gilbert Mercier
Globalist Clinton: Clear and Present Danger to World Peace
James A Haught
Many Struggles Won Religious Freedom
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Dear Fellow Gen Xers: Let’s Step Aside for the Millennials
Tom Clifford
Duterte’s Gambit: the Philippines’s Pivot to China
Uri Avnery
The Peres Funeral Ruckus
Reyes Mata III
Scaling Camelot’s Walls: an Essay Regarding Donald Trump
Raouf Halaby
Away from the Fray: From Election Frenzy to an Interlude in Paradise
James McEnteer
Art of the Feel
David Yearsley
Trump and Hitchcock in the Age of Conspiracies
Charles R. Larson
Review: Sjón’s “Moonstone: the Boy Who Never Was”