Academic journal article Law, Social Justice and Global Development Journal

Free Culture, Global Commons and Social Justice in Information Technology Diffusion

Academic journal article Law, Social Justice and Global Development Journal

Free Culture, Global Commons and Social Justice in Information Technology Diffusion

Article excerpt


This paper examines the critical role of the global expansion of IP rights in the construction and maintenance of digital inequalities and suggests that the irresolution of the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) as well as the struggles for a Development Agenda mark a crucial dimension in the global politics of digital inequalities. It suggests that a pathway to understanding these politics is a critical analysis of the nature of intellectual property rights in the context of a changing societal environment. Relations of production and hence human interaction are being transformed in ways which question the nature of property rights. It also suggests that arguments on this issue in developed countries take a different tenor in the Global South and require rethinking of issues such as sanctity of property, piracy and digital social justice.

Keywords: Information Technology, Digital Divide, Right to Development, Social Justice, World Summit on Information Society, WIPO Development Agenda, Intellectual Property, Piracy, Network Society, Network Modes of Production

1. Introduction

The World Summit on Information Society (WSIS, 2003, 2005) has suggested many solutions to the uneven global distribution of digital information and technology. Yet one area in which the deliberations were remarkably muted was on the issue of the role of intellectual property rights. In theory, these issues are being considered by the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) under its Development Agenda (Ermert 2005, New 2006, Endeshaw 2006), but there is more than a suspicion that they have been pushed under the carpet.

This paper examines the role of digital intellectual property rights in the global digital divide between developed, newly industrialising and developing countries from the perspective of developing countries of the Global South. It suggests that these issues need to be understood in the context of a critical analysis of intellectual property rights in a changing societal environment. The paper commences with a brief exploration of intellectual property rights in information technology at WSIS and WIPO. The next section addresses the question of the nature of change in production relations that has taken place in the Age of Information and the significance of Free and Open Source Software and Content (FOSS-C) movements. It then briefly considers the nature of digital inequalities in developing and newly industrialising countries. The final section considers the potential for digital social justice resulting from three different dimensions. The first is the application of arguments based on changed production and property relations in the South, the second explores the way in which people in developing countries are affecting their own solutions to digital divides through subversive strategies which involve porous relationships with legality and challenges to notions of sanctity of property and piracy. The final dimension is that of reformist arguments based on the Right to Development whether, the milder version proposed at WSIS or the more radical Development Agenda being proposed by the Group of 14 at WIPO.


The term Global Commons has become part of common parlance and intellectual property rights in information, bio- and nano-technologies are at the Centre of the argument about an 'invasion' of the commons (Austin 2005, Frischmann 2005, Faber 2005, Yu, 2005, Lessig, 2003). For developing countries, it is the TRIPS (Trade, Related Intellectual Property Rights) Agreement of the WTO which is responsible for the extension and globalisation of intellectual property rights (Correa, 2000). Of course in strict terms TRIPS allows each country to have its own property regime. Nevertheless, the requirement that the regimes must adopt certain principles is tantamount to the development of a global IP regime in its essentials. The globalisation has been on terms which have been largely dictated by developed countries, and effectively has overseen the imposition of US intellectual property principles on the rest of the world. …

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