The New York Times revealed April 7 (Bernice Dahn, “Yes, We Were Warned About Ebola“) that there was adequate prior warning of an Ebola outbreak in Liberia, but nobody drew the proper conclusion from the data and acted on it because the necessary information was all hidden behind academic journal paywalls. An article in Annals of Virology warned, all the way back in 1982, that the virus was endemic to northwestern Liberia, and had been since it was discovered in the mid-70s. Unfortunately nobody in Liberia paid much attention to it because the paywalled article costs $45 to download — about half a Liberian doctor’s weekly salary.
Aaron Swartz fought valiantly to liberate academic research from such corporate enclosure — and was driven to suicide for his efforts by an over-zealous prosecutor eager to add another high-profile conviction to her resume. You might say this was another example of how “intellectual property” kills.
If the academic paywall’s contribution to the disaster weren’t bad enough, the Ebola epidemic — which killed 10,000 people — was made worse by the fact that a patent dispute held up distribution of a vaccine. Although the patent is owned by the Canadian government, the company it was licensed to obstructed distribution of the vaccine for fear it would lose control over development of it.
This is just the latest example of an ongoing struggle. For years, the distribution of cheap or free medication — like AIDS medicine — has been an issue of contention between Third World governments and American pharmaceutical companies.
The Obama administration is pushing — hard! — global “intellectual property” rules that would make all these problems even worse. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, the main driving force of which is American corporate copyright and patent owners acting through their stooge (aka the US Trade Representative) would strengthen international drug patent laws to US standards — thereby enabling “evergreening” and “me, too” drugs so that many patents would in effect never expire. They would also illegalize many life-saving generic drugs currently available in developing countries under their local laws.
The key agenda at the center of all the so-called “free trade agreements” is the imposition, at the behest of the giant corporations that depend on “intellectual property” monopolies for their profits, of a form of protectionism far more coercive and harmful than tariffs ever dreamed of being. “Intellectual property” serves the same function that tariffs did a century ago; only now that corporations are global rather than national, the protectionist barriers are erected at corporate boundaries rather than national ones. But in either case, the protectionism involves a monopoly on the right to sell certain goods within certain market areas.
Drug patents have killed millions, and if the corporate pigs at the TPP trough get their way will kill millions more. And the enclosure of the knowledge commons erects toll-gates to impede sharing and building on knowledge. In so doing destroys the basic peer-to-peer ethos of science, which is the basis of the so-called “shoulders of giants” effect.
We need to continue fighting Aaron Swartz’s battle for information freedom, to hack academic journal paywalls and make the liberated articles freely available at file-sharing sites. And we need to seize on the opportunity offered by 3D printed drugs and open-source pharmacology to produce cheap, pirated knockoffs of patented drugs through so many different small, distributed outlets that the drug companies and their state can’t possibly suppress them.
“Intellectual property,” and the states that enforce it, are the enemies of knowledge, progress, and human life itself. It’s time to destroy them.
Translations for this article:
- Italian, La “Proprietà Intellettuale” Uccide.