Protecting 21st century know-how
Religion & Liberty Online

Protecting 21st century know-how

Hopeful signs are emerging for the future of economic prosperity in Europe despite some serious opposition. The European Parliament recently moved to scrap the ratification of an informal agreement reached last year by EU member states and supported by the European Commission, that would have made important strides forward in the legal recognition of intellectual property rights.

The Computer Implemented Inventions Directive (CIID), which would protect intellectual property and standardize EU software patent law, now appears dead. This leaves in place a patchwork of national patent laws that effectively stifles a common set of laws and regulations in Europe.

These sorts of delays and backsliding by the Parliament represent serious threats to European economies and could add to a dangerous precedent in light of the EU’s ruling against software company Microsoft. The 21st Century has ushered in the Information Age; computers and software represent the field with perhaps the greatest potential for innovation and wealth-creation in developed nations.

In spite of the opposition of the Parliament to the CIID, the European Commission has not abandoned its mandate to protect intellectual property, and is pushing ahead with a plan to standardize copyright and licensing for on-line music.

This commitment recognizes that the rule of law expressed in the recognition and respect for intellectual property is absolutely critical to the flourishing of information technology. In the Internet-era, the protection of non-material property rights is just as important, if not more, than the protection of material property rights.

The ownership of property is not merely a right to property, but is better conceived a fundamental human right, and is affirmed as such by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others” (Article 17). It is simply myopic to view “property” as merely physical objects, rather than that effort, talent, time and risk (i.e., lives) that go into producing legitimate property.

This is affirmed throughout the social teaching of the Catholic Church especially in the encyclical Centesimus Annus by Pope John Paul II where he writes, “In our time, in particular, there exists another form of ownership which is becoming no less important than land: the possession of know-how, technology and skill. The wealth of the industrialized nations is based much more on this kind of ownership than on natural resources.”

The essential link between economic productivity and intellectual property (or between things and persons) in the Information Age is underscored, as “at one time the decisive factor of production was the land, and later capital understood as a total complex of the instruments of production – today the decisive factor is increasingly man himself, that is, his knowledge, especially his scientific knowledge, his capacity for interrelated and compact organization, as well as his ability to perceive the needs of others and to satisfy them.”

One of the key roles of government is the ardent defense of an exclusive right to market one’s ideas in the form of intellectual property. Even the European Constitution, which itself has met serious opposition, states, “Intellectual property shall be protected” (Article II-77.2). Indeed, intellectual property can be viewed as the cornerstone of modern enterprise, since it works as a morally necessary incentive for human creativity. This defense of intellectual property by the government is fundamental to constructing a framework within which economic activity can prosper, to the benefit of all.

Respect for property rights qua human rights on the national and international level is, therefore, vital to meeting the needs of the human family. And the lack of such protections is having real economic consequences for Europe. A 2001 study by the World Customs Organization concluded that about one third of software across Western Europe is pirated and that “counterfeit music CDs have become more valuable, by weight, than cannabis – a kilo of cannabis will fetch EUR 2,000, while a kilo of counterfeit CDs is worth EUR 3,000.”

The popularity of digital media and broadband distribution has only exacerbated the availability of pirated materials. Music, movies, and software are readily available for download via global file-sharing software. Without the legal protection from such electronic theft, the proliferation of such piracy can only increase.

And this is precisely why the European Parliament’s move to forestall the implementation of substantive and necessary protections of property rights is so troublesome. As the CIID appears dead, we can only hope that future policies protecting intellectual property, like the Commission’s proposals for music copyright standardization, will not be defeated. Further delays would only serve to embolden the purveyors of software and music piracy, giving them more time and opportunity to sow the seeds of economic destruction.

Rev. Robert Sirico

Rev. Robert A. Sirico received his Master of Divinity degree from the Catholic University of America, following undergraduate study at the University of Southern California and the University of London. During his studies and early ministry, he experienced a growing concern over the lack of training religious studies students receive in fundamental economic principles, leaving them poorly equipped to understand and address today's social problems. As a result of these concerns, Fr. Sirico co-founded the Acton Institute with Kris Alan Mauren in 1990. As president of the Acton Institute, Fr. Sirico lectures at colleges, universities, and business organizations throughout the U.S. and abroad. His writings on religious, political, economic, and social matters are published in a variety of journals, including: the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, the London Financial Times, the Washington Times, the Detroit News, and National Review. Fr. Sirico is often called upon by members of the broadcast media for statements regarding economics, civil rights, and issues of religious concern, and has provided commentary for CNN, ABC, the BBC, NPR, and CBS' 60 Minutes, among others. In April of 1999, Fr. Sirico was awarded an honorary doctorate in Christian Ethics from the Franciscan University of Steubenville, and in May of 2001, Universidad Francisco Marroquin awarded him an honorary doctorate in Social Sciences. He is a member of the prestigious Mont Pèlerin Society, the American Academy of Religion, and the Philadelphia Society, and is on the Board of Advisors of the Civic Institute in Prague. Father Sirico also served on the Michigan Civil Rights Commission from 1994 to 1998. He is also currently serving on the pastoral staff of Sacred Heart of Jesus parish in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Fr. Sirico's pastoral ministry has included a chaplaincy to AIDS patients at the National Institute of Health and the recent founding of a new community, St. Philip Neri House in Grand Rapids, Michigan.