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June 22, 2005

Information feudalism in the US and Australia

Ronald Sackville, Cultivating the Creative Commons, On Line Opinion, June 15, 2005. Reflections of an "old-fashioned, even Luddite" Australian judge on his country's retroactive extension of the term of copyright under pressure from the United States.

Excerpt: 'Even from [my] limited perspective, it is impossible to avoid being struck by how rapidly (to use the words of Peter Drahos and John Braithwaite in their book Information Feudalism) there has been a transfer of knowledge assets from the intellectual commons into private interests... Despite the [U.S.] Supreme Court's ruling [in Eldred v. Ashcroft] and the willingness of Australian negotiators to accept the position of the US, it is extremely difficult to understand the policy justification for a further extension of the term of copyright, let alone the application of the extension to subsisting copyright... In his dissenting opinion in Eldred v Ashcroft, Justice Stevens, in words that echo the famous speech given by Lord Macaulay in 1841, pointed out that: Ex post facto extensions of copyright result in a gratuitous transfer of wealth from the public to authors, publishers and their successors and interests. The real sting in the tail of this comment is that for the most part, beneficiaries of the extension will not be authors or even the original publishers, but commercial entities which acquired the rights long before the extension... There are many commentators who have appreciated - in the words of James Boyle - that we are in the middle of the ?second enclosure movement?, which he sees as exemplified by the recognition of patent rights in human genes. Peter Drahos and John Braithwaite draw a parallel between medieval feudalism and what they describe as "information feudalism". Under the earlier variety, a lord of the manor exercised not only private power by virtue of his ownership of land, but public power, though a system of manorial taxes, courts and prisons. In the modern form of feudalism, the transfer of intellectual commons has been to media conglomerates and integrated life sciences corporations, rather than to individual scientists and authors. The effect of this, they argue, is to raise levels of private monopolistic power to dangerous global heights, at a time when States, which have been weakened by the forces of globalisation, have less capacity to protect their citizens from consequences of the exercise of this power.'

Source: Suber P. OANews Blog (15 June 2005) [FullText]

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