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Chomsky on Intellectual Property


Nov 27, 2009


The text below is an excerpt from the lecture Imminent Crises, given by Noam Chomsky at Washington State University on the 22nd of April, 2005. A full video of the lecture is available on Google Video, with the discussion of intellectual property rights beginning at 46 minutes and 21 seconds. A full transcript of the intellectual property conversation is available on Google Groups, at alt.fan.noam-chomsky.

Questioner:

"IP, or Intellectual Properties, do you feel that they are an integral component to personal freedoms or a detriment? And what place does intellectual property have in public and academic settings?"

Chomsky:

"That's a very interesting question, and it has an interesting history. The World Trade Organization, the Uruguay round that set up the World Trade Organization imposed, it's called a 'free trade agreement.' It's in fact a highly protectionist agreement. The US is strongly opposed to free trade, just as business leaders are, just as they're opposed to a market economy. A crucial part of the Uruguay round, World Trade Organization, NAFTA, and the rest of them, is very strong what are called intellectual property rights. What it actually means is rights that guarantee monopoly pricing power to private tyrannies.

So if you take say, a drug corporation, most of the serious research and development, the hard part of it, is funded by the public. In fact most of the economy comes out of public expenditures through the state system, which is the source of most innovation and development. I mean computers, the internet, just go through the range, it's all coming out of the state system primarily. There is research and development in the corporate system, some, but it's mostly at the marketing end, and the same is true of drugs.

But once the corporations gain the benefit of the public paying the costs and taking the risks, they want to monopolize the profit. And the intellectual property rights, they're not for small inventors. In fact the people doing the work in the corporations, they don't get anything out of it, you know a dollar if they invented something. It's the corporate tyrannies that are making the profits, and they want to guarantee them.

The World Trade Organization proposed new, enhanced intellectual property rights, patent rights, which means monopoly pricing rights, far beyond anything that existed in the past. In fact they are not only designed to maximize monopoly pricing and profit, but also to prevent development. That's rather crucial. World Trade Organization rules introduced product patents. It used to be you could patent a process, but not the product. Which means if some smart guy could figure out a better way of doing it, he could do it. They want to block that. It's important to block development and progress, in order to ensure monopoly rights.

...

Well, you know, that's what the intellectual property rights are for. In fact there's a name for it in economic history. Friedrich List, the famous German political economist in the nineteenth century, who was actually borrowing from Andrew Hamilton, called it 'kicking away the ladder'; first you use state power and violence to develop, and then you kick away those procedures so that other people can't do it.

...

I just don't think it has much to do with innovation or independence. It has to do with protecting major concentrations of power -- which mostly got their power as a public gift -- and making sure that they can maintain and expand their power. And these are highly protectionist devices.

...

The whole thing is set up to socialize cost and risk to the general public."