Intellectual Property and the Preferential Option for the Poor
Journal of Catholic Social Thought, Vol. 5, 2007
33 Pages Posted: 2 Mar 2007
This article, written for a symposium on the meaning of the Catholic doctrine of the preferential option for the poor, examines that concept as applied to problems of intellectual property. IP lies at the heart of debates over globalization and whether it is working to help poor nations or to impose new costs on them while increasing the wealthy nations' relative advantages. The Catholic Church has weighed in on these issues, most clearly in favor of limiting patent rights over essential medicines for combating AIDS and other epidemics. The Catholic doctrine of the preferential option for the poor puts the condition of the poor at the forefront of public-policy concerns, subjecting private property rights to a social mortgage for the satisfaction of essential human needs. But this and related doctrines also set forth themes for how the poor are to helped: the importance of empowering people to exercise their own creativity and productivity, and the value of subsidiary organizations as contrasted with the bureaucracy involved in state solutions. Thus Catholic thinkers debate in general whether limits on property rights help the poor in the fullest sense.
This article argues that recent Catholic statements endorsing limits on IP rights are well founded: that whatever position one takes generally on property rights and the poor, the principles of the preferential option point toward a skepticism about broad IP rights. Intellectual property, like other forms of property, serves important purposes related to human dignity, productivity, and (especially) creativity, and Catholic teaching therefore affirms it. But for a variety of reasons, limits on intellectual property are equally important: the full extension of IP rights may harm the poor, and certain limits on those rights are important to benefiting and empowering the poor. In particular, certain existing or proposed limits on IP rights can resonate with Catholic concepts such as maintenance of the common good and the importance of subsidiary organizations defined neither by the state nor by the market. And expressions of skepticism in Catholic thought about bureaucratic approaches to the poor reflected in the social assistance state have relatively little application to the kind of limits on IP rights that may be adopted to empower the poor.
Keywords: Intellectual property, international intellectual property, patents, copyrights, development, Catholic social thought, poverty, preferential option for the poor
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