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Property - Intellectual Property

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Intellectual property brings together many of the themes from the discussions above: conceptual complexity, global variation and convergence, and lively debates over values. Intellectual property rights are rights to control the use or transmission of intellectual creations. There are three basic categories. Copyright covers "expressive" works (such as books, musical compositions, films, paintings, computer programs) as well as performances, sound recordings, and broadcasts. Patents protect inventions. Trademarks and marks of geographical origin (for example, "Champagne") make distinctions among the goods and services that are brought to market. The wide historical variation in intellectual property law across the globe narrowed in the 1990s when intellectual property standards (such as that a copyright endures for fifty years after the death of the author, and patent protection lasts for twenty years) were built into the treaties establishing the World Trade Organization.

The origins of copyright law lie in the desire of the English crown in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to censor publications by granting printing monopolies to selected publishers; patent monopolies over inventions emerged in Renaissance Italy. In the modern era the main justifications for intellectual property rights have been three. By far the dominant justification (enshrined, for example, in the U.S. Constitution) is that the prospect of exclusive control gives creators incentives to create works that will be pleasing and useful to others. A secondary justification, usually associated with continental Europe, is that intellectual property rights protect the personality interests of artists in the integrity of their expressions. A third justification, relating mostly to trademarks and geographical marks, is that these rights assure consumers by associating a product with known producers.

Global intellectual property law has become extraordinarily elaborate as its framers have tried to balance all of the values at stake. Many disputes remain. For example, many have argued for weakening the patent protection of pharmaceuticals so that sick people in poor countries can get the medicines they need. The pharmaceutical industry has countered that such weakening would lessen the incentives they have to create new life-saving drugs in the future. Another dispute has been over emerging technologies such as the Internet, whose potential, as legal theorist Lawrence Lessig maintains, is shackled by national regulations designed to favor powerful industries.

Given that the fates of millions of lives, the rate of global economic progress, and huge profits drive controversies such as these, it is not surprising that they have moved from the legal into the political arenas. On these issues, as with so many other issues concerning property, the most basic interests and values are at stake.


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Leif Wenar

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