Thursday, August 23, 2007

Intellectual Property Rights, Indigenous People, and the Future

One of the hotter issues that has emerged out of globalization concerns indigenous peoples and intellectual property rights. Intellectual property rights are those rights people or cultures have gained through their own experience or cultural knowledge. For example, the knowledge of how certain plants within an indigenous groups homeland are used to treat fever or diarrhea would fall under intellectual property rights. Likewise, particular understandings of the land, ecology, or environment of a certain area may also fall under intellectual property rights. The key point is that intellectual property rights refers to knowledge that otherwise would not be available. It is not knowledge gained through scientific experimentation, nor is it knowledge gained through empirical deductions. Rather, it is knowledge that is gained (some may say earned) through time, place, and experience.

Because indigenous peoples have lived in their homelands for hundreds or thousands of years, because they have subsisted in their traditional territory for just as long, and because they have experienced all of this they have developed certain intellectual property that they have a right to. That is, as a result of the long time spent in their homelands and the experiences they have accrued, the knowledge that they possess is unique and special. The same is true in the rest of the world, we just often don't think of the proper metaphors to make a logical connection.

In rocky climbing there is something called "beta." To climb a route, it is often only possible when the climber knows the "beta" and does the correct sequence of moves. That is intellectual property, and climbers who have completed the route have a certain right to it. Hunters are the same. Many of them have certain tricks that they have learned over the years or a certain spot that they know will yield a good hunt. This is knowledge that has been learned or handed down for many years. This is intellectual property. In most of the industrialized world it is possible to apply for patents or some other form of guarantee that will protect these rights legally. Perhaps the most famous in terms of technology is Microsoft and its unwillingness to give up its intellectual property rights in terms of the Windows Operating System. Indigenous peoples, sadly, usually don't have the ability, nor the knowledge, that such a process actually exists.

Companies come from all over the world and visit indigenous peoples and their homelands in search of this intellectual property. When it focuses on some form of biological intellectual property, this phenomenon is known as biopiracy. Biopiracy is a negative term for the appropriation, generally by means of patents, of legal rights over indigenous biomedical knowledge without compensation to the indigenous groups who originally developed such knowledge. There are many debates about how bad such taking of intellectual property actually is. Some argue that it is not really knowledge that can be owned, and thus the knowledge is free for the taking and only the specific patents or chemical abstractions arrived at fall under any legal jurisdiction. Others argue the opposite, claiming that all knowledge was, and is, constructed by specific groups or individuals and thus is unique in the same way as chemical abstractions. The ethical and legal debates are very tricky and to some extent arbitrary. The ones with the power (and the money) will most likely carry the day.

My point, and the reason for this post, are more in lines with simply getting the information out there and letting the consumer make the decision. People are beginning to realize that when they fill up their car, the gas came from somewhere real, and its extraction more than likely impacted a group of people. Drinking my coffee while writing this post, I'm reminded that the indigenous people of Guatemala farmed it for me. When young teenage girls pop Hoodia, they should (but don't) realize that their diet drug comes from a cactus found in the Kalahari Desert, and that the indigenous people of this area have not seen any benefits from the drugs mass explosion on the world market. The problem, however, is that people can grasp pollution, they can grasp environmental destruction, they can grasp deforestation - all of these are very visible and thus easier to understand. With intellectual property, to some extent the very heart and soul of a culture's history and experience, there is no visible entity to grasp and point to. Taking Hoodia pills gives one no indication that indigenous people in sub-Saharan Africa have been impacted. Well, I argue that they should.

The old saying goes, knowledge is all powerful. Well, here we are talking about knowledge, how it is appropriated and manipulated, and then spit out again as new knowledge. The only way to combat this is through more knowledge. Please, take a moment to inform yourself. Here are some useful links so that you can begin to develop your own intellectual property, and in the process, help people protect theirs.


Wikipedia is always a good place to start.

Here is the U.S. government's take.

Here is the UK government's take.

A page on Hopi intellectual property rights.

A great page on Alaskan Native's intellectual property rights.

A great paper on the topic from an Australian perspective.

I'm sure there are many more great resources out there. If you know of one, let me know and I will add it to the list. Together we can all find our own intellectual property.

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