Friday, June 02, 2006

Intellectual Property, Education and Access to Knowledge in Southern Africa

Intellectual Property, Education and Access to Knowledge in Southern Africa is a terrific paper by Andrew Rens, legal lead of Creative Commons South Africa, Achal Prabhala, coordinator of the Access to Learning Materials Project in Southern Africa and Dick Kawooya, founding member of the Africa Access to Knowledge Alliance formerly Africa Copyright Forum. It runs to 70 pages so the full document is mainly for IP and A2K geeks but the executive summary is just a little over 2 pages long and well worth a read.

"There can be little doubt that education is a cornerstone of social and economic development, or that access to learning materials is a crucial factor in the success of any educational system. In a world which values the production and dissemination of information and knowledge, human capital growth is a serious developmental concern. We live, apparently, in a ‘knowledge economy’, and if so, two processes seem worth noting. First, societies of the global south are struggling with everyday challenges of education and literacy, while their institutions and governments perform the inevitable balancing act between scarce resources and vast needs. Second, producers of knowledge goods, heretofore located in the north, are increasingly global in scope; exporting, with their expansion, an intellectual property rights (IPR) regime that poses current and potential deterrents to learning.

...much of the changes wrought recently in IPR (in the domain of multilateral and bilateral trade negotiations)... pose a potential threat to the learning environment, and curtail opportunities – now and in the future – to institutions and individuals enabled with adequate infrastructure...

The simplest lesson, perhaps, comes from exploring the dichotomy evident in the traditional knowledge good and its alternative equivalent. Books are still largely inaccessible in the south – whether on account of high cost, unsuitability of language and format, or, even more simply, plain unavailability. The open access textbook, on the other hand, costs as much as it does to print and can be available wherever necessary. Even a visible scarcity ... could be alleviated by the permission-free translation choices presented by open access, since access to cultural goods in turn produces producers of cultural goods...

The challenges facing copyright law in relation to access to learning materials need to be prefaced by the international obligations facing the Southern African Customs Union (SACU)... A significant process currently underway in SACU, for instance, is a free trade agreement (FTA) with the US, where the conditions proposed by the US on copyright and related policy are, in general, beyond conditions imposed by obligations to the WTO, especially in the digital domain.

But a focus on global processes, necessary as it is, must also consider local circumstances. In SACU countries, as elsewhere in the global south, the informal economy – knowledge and cultural goods included – plays a key role in bridging access gaps that traditional market mechanisms overlook or exclude... any set of policy solutions that address the problem of access to learning materials in southern Africa will have to consider the informal economy in order to be comprehensive.

It is under such conditions then, local and global, that the importance of making a legitimate claim for access to learning materials becomes important. As past campaigns, such as the loosely federated access to medicines movement have shown, the challenge is not insurmountable. In this case, the current needs and potential benefits of expanding access, combined, present a credible case for serious and urgent intervention."

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