CMCT 6308: The Politics Of Intellectual Property, Human Rights And Development

CMCT 6308: The Politics Of Intellectual Property, Human Rights And Development


CMCT 6308 3.0 credits

The expansion of intellectual property rights (IPRs) has become a major area of international controversy and global resistance as these properties come into conflict with broader public interests and, arguably, often violate human rights. The course explores the new regimes of trade that are expanding the privatization of more and more areas of human life, and the drive to develop new IPRs to recognize more areas of human effort in the context of the emergence of informational capitalism and neoliberal environmentalism.

The World Intellectual Property Organization has recognized that the intellectual property system must “reach out to new beneficiaries.” Some environmentalists have suggested that IPRs should be used to further goals of biodiversity preservation and sustainable development. The intellectual property framework, some argue, is sufficiently flexible to accommodate a range of “traditional” forms of production, handicraft, medicine, and folklore. Others decry this movement as an insidious form of creeping commodification. A vibrant public domain, they argue, is necessary for democracy, competition, and development. A global commons, others suggest, is absolutely necessary for human development.

The worldwide indigenist movement has proclaimed the rights of indigenous peoples to control their own cultural heritage in an international draft declaration (that has arguably achieved the status of international customary law) while the more general human rights framework affirms collective rights to the maintenance of cultural identity. The capacity of IPRs to protect these rights, however, is widely doubted. As a consequence, new indigenous research protocols and new forms of secrecy have evolved. New protocols and new professional ethics with respect to research are emerging. Even in more developed countries there is a growing movement to find means of “protecting” cultural diversity from the predations of market forces and trade agreements as a means of ensuring a culturally pluralist public sphere. From an American perspective, however, these efforts appear to be mere forms of trade protectionism and violations of free speech rights to boot.

The course will explore these issues as new forms of political struggle. The course will provide students with a background in understanding the legal regimes and international social and political networks that create the context for new fields of cultural politics in an era of informational capital. We will consider four regimes– human rights, indigenous rights, environmental rights related to biolological diversity, and trade related intellectual property rights — as relevant contexts.

Readings for the course are interdisciplinary (legal studies, anthropology, area studies, development theory, environmental studies as well as communications) because of the nature of the fields in which these political issues have emerged.

Following an introduction to the major forms of intellectual property, we will consider how intellectual property establishes fields of ownership and why these forms of ownership are so controversial. Intellectual properties create monopolies over public goods, effect price differentials, and have distributional consequences for the availability of important technologies (from medicines to seeds). These tendencies are exacerbated with the rise of information capital in the “new economy” and force us to reconsider the public interest in access to knowledge and technology, the meanings of the “progress” interest that underlies these rights, its relation to “development” and the relation of intellectual property protections to human rights commitments. Specific issues of controversy in international law and policy are then explored.


Course Number: CMCT6308
Field: Communication & Culture
School: York University
Date Published: April 1, 2008