[T]he legal regime of intellectual property has insinuated itself more deeply into our lives and more deeply into the framework of international law, affecting everything from the recreational home user's ability to share music, to the farmer's ability to replant seed, to the production and distribution of life-saving drugs. Indeed, with full compliance to the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement now required (as of January 1, 2005) in all but the world's very least developed countries, intellectual property law becomes literally a question of life or death. Despite these real world changes, intellectual property scholars increasingly explain their field through the lens of economics. (Sunder 2006, p. 261)
Intellectual property rights (IPRs) intersect with many vital areas of human well-being and development. From access to medicines, food, education and the arts, through to the preservation of cultural heritage, there are few human endeavours untouched by intellectual property (IP). As knowledge-based economies rapidly expand in our information age, the need for balance between private rights and the public interest over intangible creations becomes ever more pertinent. There are divided views, meanwhile, on how and if IP can advance the public interest. Sir Hugh Laddie (2002) wrote in his foreword to the seminal report of the Commission on Intellectual Property Rights (CIPR) on Integrating Intellectual Property Rights and Development Policy:
On the one side, the developed world side, there exists a powerful lobby of those who believe that all IPRs are good for business, benefit the public at large and act as catalysts for technical progress. They believe and argue that, if IPRs are good, more IPRs must be better. On the other side, the developing world side, there exists a vociferous lobby of those who believe that IPRs are likely to cripple the development of local industry and technology, will harm the local population and benefit none but the developed world. They believe and argue that, if IPRs are bad, the fewer the better. The process of implementing TRIPS has not resulted in a shrinking of the gap that divides these two sides, rather it has helped to reinforce the views already held…So firmly and sincerely held are these views that at times it has appeared that neither side has been prepared to listen to the other. Persuasion is out, compulsion is in. (Ibid., p. iii)
Fervent debate continues over the socio-economic impacts of IP, generating increased public awareness of these issues and at least some notable legal reforms. Increasingly drawn into the debate are a spectrum of individuals and communities who grapple with IP in many different ways. Some are uncertain about their rights whether as IP holders or as users of material which might be under IP protection. Others seek to inform themselves further on the social dimensions of IP – in a field marked by the lack of reliable empirical evidence on the economic impacts of IP, the social dimensions are even more opaque and harder to gauge. Yet others are only beginning to explore how IPRs have come to pervade and circumscribe their daily lives in palpable ways. In addressing these social and legal dimensions, this study explores how the social impact of IP might be approached and evaluated more systematically.