Forget those song-swapping teenagers targeted by music industry lawsuits. Critics of the restrictive, heavy-handed approach to intellectual property (IP) favored by large corporations now have a new champion: Brazil.
Yes, the country. From music to medicine, software to agriculture, the world's fifth-largest nation has become a laboratory for policies that seek to expand the information commons, charting a legal course that is driving copyright and patent holders to distraction and raising new questions about the rights of poor countries to determine their own path toward development.
'A world opened up by communications cannot remain closed up in a feudal vision of property,' says Brazil's minister of culture, Gilberto Gil, in Wired (Nov. 2004). In addition to his government job, Gil is one of Brazil's biggest pop stars. He has made a fortune from his own music copyrights, yet he rails against the 'fundamentalists of absolute property control' -- the corporations and governments that, left unchecked, would lock up all information, from literature to DNA, and require users to pay royalties for every scrap.
Last year Gil threw his government's support behind the Creative Commons licensing system, a more flexible form of copyright designed by Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig. These 'some rights reserved' licenses allow artists to specify allowable free uses, such as digital sampling and noncommercial file sharing, for their work. Putting his own money where his mouth is, Gil also offered to re-release several of his old hit songs under the license, free for anyone to download, sample, and reuse to their liking. That idea hit a snag when Warner Music of Brazil, which co-owns Gil's copyrights, balked at the notion of letting him give away his music.
On another contentious front in the IP wars -- software -- Brazil has thumbed its nose at Microsoft and other giants. 'The prime directive of the federal Institute for Information Technology is to promote the adoption of free software throughout the government and ultimately the nation,' writes Wired's Julian Dibbell. 'Ministries and schools are migrating their offices to open-source systems. And within the government's 'digital inclusion' programs -- aimed at bringing computer access to the 80 percent of Brazilians who have none -- GNU/Linux is the rule.'
In August 2003, former president (now senator) Jos? Sarney sponsored a teach-in on free software at the Brazilian National Congress, attended by 161 of the country's 594 congress members, that featured a keynote address by the father of free software, Richard Stallman. And the country now boasts a burgeoning community of open-source software developers that rivals those in the United States and India. Medical patents, especially on life-saving AIDS drugs, have pitted Brazil, South Africa, and several other nations ravaged by the disease against pharmaceutical manufacturers like Merck and AstraZeneca. Poor countries insist on the right to favor patients over patents in cases of public health emergencies by producing and distributing to their citizens cheap generic copies of patent medicines. This issue helped propel President Luiz In?cio Lula da Silva to his landslide victory in the 2001 elections. Lula's Workers Party had pioneered a successful program that gave away a free cocktail of AIDS drugs to HIV sufferers in several cities governed by the party.
Brazil's public-minded approach to IP has been likened to tropicalismo, a 1960s musical movement founded by Gil and his longtime collaborator Caetano Veloso that cut and pasted traditional Brazilian bossa nova with a hodgepodge of outside influences. It was, Gil tells Wired, 'no longer a mere submission to the forces of economic imperialism, but a cannibalistic response of swallowing what they gave us, processing it, and making it something new and different. We saw the cultivating of new habits and manners from the outside as a way of nourishing ourselves, not just intoxicating ourselves.' The resulting sonic pastiche was considered revolutionary at the time, not just by fans but also by Brazil's right-wing military junta -- who threw Veloso and Gil in jail, then into exile in London.
Since 1970 the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) has governed international IP standards. At first the WIPO framework did not force member countries to change their national laws, allowing them to choose for themselves the level of IP protection appropriate for their level of development. But since 1995, trade negotiators from the United States, the European Union, and Japan (where most copyrights, patents, and trademarks are registered) have been bullying the world's poor countries to adopt stronger controls on intellectual property -- the same level of protection as in the rich countries. 'It is not in the interests of poor countries . . . to adopt or recognize restrictive IP regimes, as these would deprive them of access to knowledge and involve heavy financial drain in the payment of royalties,' argue the editors of Third World Resurgence (Nov./Dec. 2004). 'At minimum, they must have the freedom to tailor their IP laws to meet their developmental needs.' Contention over IP issues was one of the key reasons for the collapse of the World Trade Organization talks in Seattle in 1999 and in Canc?n in 2003.
At a WIPO meeting last October in Geneva, Brazil led a coalition of poor countries in saying no to the rich countries' 'high-protectionist agenda' for IP, proposing instead that the organization establish a 'development agenda' that is sensitive to the needs of its members. Despite opposition from the United States, the member states accepted the proposal and will soon begin negotiations on a development agenda, a move Brazil calls a 'small but positive step for WIPO.'
Ultimately, says tropicalista Gilberto Gil, ideas and information want to be free. 'No country, not the United States, not Europe, can stand in the way of it,' he says. 'It's a global trend. It's part of the very process of civilization. It's the semantic abundance of the modern world, of the postmodern world -- and there's no use resisting it.'