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Copyright and its impact on access to knowledge and technology
One of the justifications for a strong IP regime emerges from the argument of economic development. Economists argue that IP is needed for economic growth which is needed to reduce poverty. By ensuring innovation, creativity and productivity through IP development, countries can increase their agricultural and industrial production as well as financial investment.
The argument assumes that the system that has worked for developed countries will work similarly for developing countries. A counter-argument is that IP rights do very little to promote economic development in developing countries and in fact may end up hindering it where the necessary economic and technical capabilities are absent. For instance, the Commission on IPR maintains that IP regimes are ineffective at stimulating research that will benefit poor people because they will not be able to afford the products even if these are developed. Moreover, IP rules limit the option of technological learning through imitation and allow foreign firms to drive out domestic competition by obtaining patent protection and to service the market through imports rather than through domestic manufacture (CIPR 2002).
It is estimated that in 1999 nearly 1.2 billion people lived on less than USD 1 a day, and nearly 2.8 billion people lived on less than USD 2 per day. About 65 per cent of these people are in South and East Asia alone (World Bank 2001). Thus a key issue for policymakers is who to focus on when they consider IP and technology policies. Unfortunately, most IP policies focus on IP owners and producers and not the users. It is important to bear in mind that almost all countries in Asia Pacific, with the exception of Japan, remain net importers of IP. Even countries like India that produce a lot of IP rarely own the legal rights to the products developed locally, since these are created for companies in the northern hemisphere.
The asymmetry between developed and developing countries in relation to technology is further illustrated by the fact that low and middle income developing countries account for about 21 per cent of world GDP (World Bank) but less than 10 per cent of worldwide research and development (R&D) expenditure.2 The OECD countries spend far more on R&D than India's total national income.3 Tables 1 and 2 contrast the level of investment and activities with respect to R&D expenditure and patents in developed and developing countries. They provide an insight into the sharp inequalities in the knowledge economy. Table 1 shows that the R&D budgets of developed countries far exceed those of the developing countries. Table 2 shows that the patent share of developing countries is miniscule in comparison to that of the developed countries.
Source: Kumar (2003).
Note: #Belongs to 1997.
Source: Kumar (2003).
Note: Based on data presented in US Patents and Trademarks office (2001), TAF Special Report: All Patents, All Types—January 1, 1977–December 31, 2000, Washington, DC.
Given this asymmetry, policymakers in Asia Pacific will have to consider the impact of IP on the following four factors: (a) the costs of acquiring technology, (b) the opportunity costs in terms of developmental funding for key areas such as education, health and infrastructure, (c) the need to consider alternatives to paying high royalty costs and (d) the need to focus on developing indigenous technology instead of relying on importing foreign technology. By shifting focus away from protecting IP producers and owners, towards viewing IP through the prism of human rights and development, policymakers will be able to determine what would constitute the best model of IP laws within their economic and cultural context, keeping in mind their obligations under TRIPS.
The ICT revolution of this era promises a radical shift in the paradigm of how information, knowledge and culture are produced, disseminated and accessed (Rifkin 2000). Yet this promise must overcome the challenges posed by severe restrictions that make access to knowledge and culture more difficult for people, especially the poor and underprivileged. Stricter IP laws that raise information costs constitute grave impediments to a more democratized information environment. This is illustrated in the case of partially sighted and blind people whose already limited access to digital content is further curtailed by traditional as well as new copy protocols (see boxed article).
The case highlights the broader issue of the relationship between copyright and access to knowledge. Copyright was intended as a system of balances to provide incentives to creators while also ensuring free circulation of copyright works in the public domain for all other creators to build on. This balance has shifted aggressively and it has expanded drastically in favour of content owners such as large publishing houses and media conglomerates. It is imperative for policymakers to consider what kind of exceptions or compulsory license mechanisms can be devised to enable greater access to content and information for all of their citizens. In spite of their relatively weak bargaining power in the new global order, policymakers from developing countries in Asia Pacific must consider the best options available to them under the current paradigm.