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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.