United Nations

Copyright vote right pill for greed

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 April, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 April, 2001, 12:00am

You may have missed it yesterday but, while we were busy protecting the profits of American corporations with our new copyright law, the United Nations, no less, showed that it has come to its senses and will no longer tolerate such nonsense.

By a vote of 52 in favour and one abstention, the UN Commission on Human Rights approved a resolution saying that access to medication in the context of pandemics such as HIV/AIDS is a 'fundamental element for achieving for everyone the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health'.

This was a roundabout way of saying that big drug companies in the United States had better think again if they think that taking out patents on AIDS drugs will make them big money from sales of those drugs to poor countries afflicted by AIDS.

It makes official what has already become fact for most of Africa. AIDS drugs are increasingly being produced on the ground there in defiance of patents, at a fraction of the prices patent holders want and with the blessings of the African governments concerned.

It is not surprising to discover that the one abstention to this resolution came from the United States, whose representative whinged that it questioned the validity of internationally agreed protection of intellectual property rights.

Exactly. This is precisely what it does and about time too.

Now you will undoubtedly protest here that there is good reason to protect intellectual property. As a matter of natural justice alone, people should have a right to make some money from their innovations rather than see pirates take it all away and, as a matter of commercial interest, they will not go to the expense of producing new drugs if they do not have patents to help them recover their outlays.

All of this is true but it does not address the question of degree. How much should they get? Corporate America blithely takes the view that intellectual property rights give it the right to extort whatever it can get with no fetters to its greed except what it may choose to impose on itself.

It therefore has only itself to blame if it invites the response the UN has now given it. Make no mistake about this. The resolution was indeed the thin edge of the wedge. It sets a precedent that will cascade down through the entire intellectual property game across the world. From now on there are limits.

Let us put this into the local context. Our Government was recently fooled into adopting a draconian copyright law on the fatuous American sales pitch that it is the only way to make the SAR a regional centre of information technology.

It will make us nothing of the sort of course. It will only obstruct our IT development by making the process more expensive and hindering our own innovators at every step. What corporate America wants and has been given by this outrageous law is the right to plunder us, to enforce that plunder with our money instead of its own and to exclude us from the proceeds.

But difficulties have already arisen. Government officials have discovered that they have prohibited their own normal use of photocopiers and fax machines and their hasty patch-up legislation to get around this problem has developed problems of its own.

There will be graver problems to come. This sort of law invites widespread non-compliance. Tell yourself that you will never again save anything from the Internet to disk, particularly when your IT support people tell you to do so to avoid trouble with viruses. You criminal. Off to prison with you.

We will soon be taking a leaf out of Africa's book this way. It will be regrettable for rule of law but a reminder that rule of law can be misused too. Hurrah for the UN.