Intellectual Property Rights, Open Source Methods and Traditional Knowledge in Developing Countries
The waves of proprietary economic thinking break apart on the shores of traditional knowledge and open source software.
Understanding traditional knowledge
Traditional knowledge can be viewed as a kind of collective sense within shared communities. Considered as a form of community common sense, traditional knowledge may be general or may be specialized depending on the topic. For example, the application and efficacy of medicinal plants as understood by traditional medical practitioners in a tribal community forms a specialized island of common sense and wisdom. Particularized bodies of knowledge underlying a society’s art, medicine and agriculture may be handed down from generation to generation via give-and-take collaboration and the practice of apprenticeship.
Unfortunately, there is a growing notion among proponents of Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) that property protection should be applied to islands of traditional knowledge in order to preserve and promote them. The common sense of others becomes a kind of commodity to be traded in a global market economy. Yet it is on the shores of traditional knowledge that waves of proprietary economic thinking break. Property protection constructs a dam from alien concepts of privacy, economic restriction and market control. Adoption of property exchange tends to block the flow of traditional forms of shared community knowledge.
Developing countries and IPRs
Long range economic value cannot be achieved by artificially monetizing shared traditions through patenting, copyrighting or trademarking components like medicines or genetic materials or other processes and structures of nature incorporated into the common heritage within developing countries. In fact, most bodies of traditional knowledge will produce minimal economic benefit from applying IPRs. Instead, the promotion of IPRs is often an excuse to bring outlying markets into the fold of an unfamiliar economic model by which the developed economies exert control through shear size and precedent.
Furthermore, because of their continuing unequal statures, developing countries bear the lion’s share of misappropriation of traditional knowledge. But the true loss is not the pennies which their indigenous populations might earn selling herbs and local seeds. The true price is induction into a system of trade where the deck is already stacked in favor of existing and highly developed proprietary interests. Governments in developing countries should refuse to sign onto legal regimes which serve to fashion former colonies into second class citizens in a new economic order.
Instead of treating traditional knowledge as a marketable commodity or property in its own right, greater value may be forged using collective knowledge as the capital to fund the building blocks of higher-order economic processes. In fact, the temptation to coerce all economic processes into the least common denominator of property rights should be discouraged. Greater advantages may derive from treating the patterns underlying the development of traditional knowledge together with the knowledge created as items of value for everyone to share, explore and enhance.
Role of open source methods
Open source software demonstrates the advantages of treating knowledge as items of value for everyone to share, explore and enhance. With open source software, we are witnessing the global evolution of a powerful digital corpus of knowledge itself becoming a kind of traditional knowledge.
Unfortunately there is a notable imbalance in the participation by developing countries in building shared open technologies. But it is vital for the historically disadvantaged countries to recognize that collaborative technologies do not try to exploit or enslave collaborators. Instead they seek to drive economic value into higher, service-oriented layers which levels the playing field for high-quality but less costly competitors in the developing countries.
Open technology-based services industries can exploit the true economic value of a common knowledge base which everyone has the opportunity to share and to build upon, both rich and poor alike. And the principles driving open source software development can be applied equally well to other knowledge fields such as pharmacology and farming. Open source software, like the incremental building of bodies of traditional knowledge, provides a sustainable, non-exploitative model to benefit all economic fields.