On September 21, the Vatican observer at the UN, Mons. Silvano Maria Tomasi, addressed the 48th general assembly of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) in Geneva (English translation). He let the group know that the Vatican supports intellectual property rights (IPR) because such protection “recognizes the dignity of man and his work” and because it contributes to “the growth of the individual personality and to the common good.”
But Tomasi then went on to make a point we’ve harped on repeatedly here at Ars: supporting IP rights in general does not always mean supporting tougher patent and copyright rules; “better” does not always mean “stronger.”
“A stronger system of protection could either enhance or limit economic growth,” Tomasi said. “While strengthening IPRs has potential for enhancing growth and development in the proper circumstances, it might also raise difficult economic and social costs. Indeed, developing economies could experience net welfare losses in the short run because many of the costs of protection could emerge earlier than the dynamic benefits.”
As for the argument that companies will invest more development money in poorer countries that boost their IP protections, Tomasi notes that “improved IPRs by itself is highly unlikely to produce such benefits.” What’s needed is education, financial markets, and better technical training—”human capital” and social infrastructure. Simply demanding that all countries adopt the tough IP standards of wealthy nations won’t help anyone.
Tomasi’s goal is a “fair regime of intellectual property rights [that] should aim toward the good of all, the pursuit of more equitable international relations, especially with regard to poorer and more vulnerable people.”
A recent encyclical by Pope Benedict, one that speaks at length about the Catholic approach to development, is deeply concerned with economic inequality. In Benedict’s view, strong IP rights can be part of such inequality. “On the part of rich countries there is excessive zeal for protecting knowledge through an unduly rigid assertion of the right to intellectual property, especially in the field of health care,” he notes.
Elèutheros agrees. It’s a Catholic group (whose name means “free”) which exists for “the promotion, inside the Catholic Church, of the software, computer protocols and file formats more compatible with Her own Doctrine: those Free (as in Freedom).” The group praised Tomasi’s speech, saying that the concerns behind it inspired Elèutheros’ own manifesto.