May 18, 2023

In discussion with Cecilia Rikap

Cecilia Rikap was a guest at the SFB as a Mercator Fellow. We talked to her about property and her research.

What is the importance of property in general and intellectual property in particular for you?

Studies on property are crucial to understand social relations under capitalism. In particular, intellectual property rights shape and determine who gets access to knowledge and how. As such, they express a power relation between those that have and those that have not but need. Having said this, one must add that although property is the fundamental social arrangement of our time underpinning asymmetries, at the same time, one should distinguish between legal and economic property or control since they may not coincide. In my research, I explain how global leading corporations control assets that they don’t legally own. They plan the labour process in firms that are subordinated to them because they need access to knowledge monopolized by those leading corporations in order to operate their business. In this case, the firm exercising the intellectual monopoly has economic property over what is legally the property of another firm.

What reference do you have to property in your research projects?

On top of the latter, in my research, I conceptualize our contemporary society as intellectual monopoly capitalism. This new stage within capitalism, as I explain, is the outcome of four interrelated processes and one of them concerns the institutional and political transformations that favoured the concentration of intangible assets. Among the latter, I study the establishment of the current intellectual property rights regime as two de-embodiment and re-embodiment moments. That I summarize next:
Since the mid-19th century in the US and the United Kingdom, a separation of knowledge from workers as its producers has taken place. In this process, among other legal constructs and business practices, trade secret as a corporate right was instrumental. Another outstanding transformation of that time regards trademarks or trade-names, which were used in the Middle Ages to identify the products of a particular guild. The law of trademarks was sanctioned after businessmen and courts recognized a first form of goodwill that back then referred to customer loyalty (good will). It was associated with product quality, hence the utility of trademarks to provide certainty to customers against the risk of poor-quality copies. Nowadays, the owners of registered marks prevent others from using similar marks.
Since the 1980s, a new wave of legal and institutional transformations resulted in a more stringent and extensive IPRs regime in the US. This system was internationalized in the mid-1990s with the signature of TRIPS. Knowledge used for production became independent, appropriable entities, granting intellectual monopolies to those owning, possessing or controlling them.

What property structures are important to you for the future, or what changes to the existing property structures do you think would be useful?

I think that we need to mobilize research and agency to build a new knowledge regime based on commons and free public education for all. However, this is quite unfeasible under the current capitalist institutions. Therefore, some advances could be brought by getting IPR waivers for knowledge that could be used to address issues within the ecological, economic and social crisis of our time.