‘The current phase of capitalist development’, says Gareth Locksley, ‘is one characterized by the elevation of information and its associated technology into the first division of key resources and commodities. Information is a new form of capital’,footnote1 and as such it undergoes a change of form: rather than being deposited primarily in an interlocking ensemble of open ‘library’ systems with minimal entry requirements, it is increasingly managed within a system of private ownership where access is regulated by the payment of rent.footnote2 One point at which it is possible to see this change crystallizing is in the protocols relating to intellectual property in the recently concluded gatt round.footnote3

An unlikely embodiment of the world-historical spirit, the gatt treaty nevertheless marks a clear historical demarcation in the global control of information. I shall argue that it imposes a definition of intellectual-property rights directly disadvantageous to Third World countries which, holding few patents themselves, have been brought within the scope of a regime where they will be held strictly accountable for their state of exponentially increasing indebtedness.footnote4 One commentator—no less convinced of the righteousness of the cause of Western property rights than the majority of Western analysts—sets up the narrative of conflicting interests between the developed countries and the Lesser Developed Countries (ldcs) in the following way:

Many ldcs have a different philosophy about the protection of intellectual property. There are some politicians and economists who assert that intellectual property protection laws simply perpetuate a system of economic imperialism which allows countries such as the United States to maintain a position of world dominance. These dissenters believe that ideas should flow freely as part of [the] common heritage of mankind. Brazil does not give drugs any patent protection within its borders because the government does not believe its people should have to pay what is to them a very high price, for a basic health care commodity. Argentina takes a similar position on pharmaceuticals. One can sympathize with the plight of ldcs in their effort to make products affordable for their citizens whose per capita income is significantly lower than that of the developed countries. But an argument which does not allow for an adequate return on investment in research and development is ultimately short-sighted. Mexico is an example of a country which threatened to force pharmaceutical companies to hand over production of their drugs to local firms and accept significantly reduced royalties. But the drug companies countered with a threat to abandon the Mexican market entirely, and the government backed down. As a result of the threat, American drug firms are still leery of exposing too much of their technology in Mexico.footnote5

What begins here as an argument about the ethics and the long-term inefficiencies of refusing to accept the advanced world’s definition of appropriate patent rights becomes, by the end of this passage, an object lesson in realpolitik: Mexico’s ‘short-sightedness’ has nothing to do with the morality of its philosophical position, and everything to do with its miscalculation of the power of international drug companies. This shift is characteristic, I think, of the logic within which the argument has been conducted.

Much of the commentary on the gatt round is cast in terms of calculations of the losses incurred by the Western information industries as a result of ‘piracy’ and ‘theft’;footnote6 but these calculations rarely attempt to get to grips with the conflict of definitions of what should count as ‘property’ in the first place—should patents run for five years or for twenty? Should pharmaceutical products be subject to special conditions such as local licensing? Their bland assurances that subscription to an international intellectual-property regime will in the long term bring about technology transfer and thus a decreased dependency of the ‘developing’ on the ‘developed’ nationsfootnote7 ring hollow in the light of the way the gatt regime has ‘neatly and disturbingly divided developed countries, who are major net exporters of intellectual-property rights, from the ldcs which are net importers’.footnote8 There is no ‘accumulation of knowledge capital’ when access to that capital is carefully controlled by monopoly rents.

One of the main objectives of the Uruguay Round of the gatt was the extension of patent enforcement to certain key industries such as pharmaceuticals and agrochemicals which in many countries were exempt from patent protection.footnote9 These are industries whose products—medicine and food—embody in a particularly direct manner the issue of a conflict between ‘social’ and ‘private’ interests. Indira Gandhi put the différend starkly when she told the World Health Assembly in1982: ‘The idea of a better-ordered world is one in which medical discoveries will be free of patents and there will be no profiteering from life and death’.footnote10 Now, such an argument is vulnerable to attack within a framework in which research and development are primarily funded by private, profit-oriented investment. In such a context, the argument mistakes a commodity for a gift, and the consequences of this mistake are ethically dubious. But this is of course by no means the only thinkable framework. If knowledge and the information component of its products are conceived as public rather than private goods, then there are at least two possible alternatives: the direct sponsorship of knowledge production by government, for public use and by means of a subsidy from the taxation system; or public subsidy for the private production of knowledge, again for public use. Historically, as Carlos Braga argues, these alternative frameworks have been propounded in international forumsfootnote11 by Third World bureaucracies, whose attitudes ‘reflect the predominance of a scientific ethos which has at its basis the norm of complete disclosure. This “culture”. . .is hostile to the view of knowledge as a private capital good that is the foundation of the so-called mature intellectual-property systems of the industrialized economies’.footnote12

It is perhaps in this broad sense, and with a full recognition that this gift is in no way ‘free’, since it must be subsidized by the state, that the opposition between gift and commodity may become clearer. The condition for this move, however, is the ‘norm of complete disclosure’ which was the historical condition of possibility for scientific thought to break with a culture and a politics of the secret,footnote13 and which retains its power as a challenge to the increasingly pervasive ethos of private appropriation and control both of scientific and of ‘cultural’ knowledges.