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Betrayal by monopoly

Book>> Common as air, revolution, art and ownership • by Lewis Hyde, Farrar, Strauss and Girar

By Uma Patel
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

imageIn the past two decades, the US government has become a bulwark of the movement for intellectual property rights.

Trade-related Intellectual Property Rights regime owes much to tough talking US representatives at WTO deliberations.

Players in music, film, agriculture and pharmaceutical industry look up to USA to secure their monopolistic preserves. It was not always so. In Common as Air, historian Lewis Hyde shows that founding fathers of the US, like Benjamin Franklin, believed in free flowing ideas. The book shows Franklin as a participant who wanted to draw on works of Issac Newton, William Harvey and others who noticed similarity between electric sparks and lighting.


Franklin’s famous kite experiment expressed original insight on nature of electricity, but when he reported it in The Pennsylvania Gazette, he did not take credit because he felt committed to “produce something for the common benefit.”

imageAnother founding father, Thomas Jefferson, described knowledge as “common property”. Hyde’s book shows how much of science is a product of discussion in academic chains that extended from St Petersburg in Russia to Philadelphia. He contrasts such initiatives with current efforts to close off sectors of knowledge to exploit them for private profit, as in the case of companies that attempt to use the understanding of human genome for gaining control of DNA segments in the treatment of diseases like diabetes and breast cancer.

He is positive about current data sharing projects like Creative Commons, the Public Library of Science, Wikipedia and the Internet Archive. He also praises the General Public Licenses, which channel intellectual property into public domain, and Distributed Annotation System that prevent monopoly of genomic knowledge. Hyde believes that sharing knowledge should be the order of the day in today’s Internet-linked world.

Uma Patel works with Amnesty International

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