The Future of Copyright in a Global Context

This past March, Toronto hosted the 55th Annual Convention of the International Studies Association (ISA). This year’s ISA Annual Convention brought together over 5300 scholars, practitioners, and students to discuss “Geopolitics in an Era of Globalization”. As intellectual property-based industries become increasingly implicated in global economic, social, cultural, and political discussions, copyright issues are becoming more complicated and contested.


In order to examine the role of copyright in this emerging situation, Blayne Haggart, assistant professor of political science at Brock University, chaired a panel focused on “Copyright’s Global Politics: Past, Present, and Future” (TD34). This panel was comprised of renowned and emerging scholars working on copyright and related issues.

Susan K. Sell, professor of political science and international affairs at the Elliot School of International Affairs (The George Washington University), began the panel by discussing what she describes as “the cat and mouse game” of global copyright politics. Professor Sell has had a distinguished career examining the international political dimensions of copyright law. She describes the contemporary situation as the interplay between “cats” (intellectual property (IP) rights holders seeking to ration IP) and “mice” (stakeholders advocating for greater access to IP-related goods and services). In institutional and legal contexts, the cats and mice each work to assert their interests, concerns, and positions.

For example, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) negotiations are described as an instance of “forum shifting” where IP rights holders (cats) and their supportive governments seek to expand and entrench beneficial IP law internationally without public consultation or participation via trade negotiations operating outside of the multilateral World Trade Organization (WTO) framework. In response, “mice” worked to derail the ratification of the treaty by motivating public opposition. This “recursive dynamic” leads to unintended consequences: while IP rights holders and beneficiaries seek to reinforce their privileged positions, their actions lead to reactionary movements that highlight the concerns of stakeholders that are often unrepresented.

Professor Haggart further explored this situation by presenting a paper based off of work included in his new book, Copyfight: The Global Politics of Digital Copyright Reform. The pervasiveness of digital technologies in daily life is contributing to a rising public interest in copyright issues and reform initiatives. The international protests over ACTA as well as the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and PROTECT IP (PIPA) online protests reflect this rising concern that digital copyright – and IP reforms – are not attending to the interests of citizens and users. As Professor Haggart argues, it is becoming increasingly more difficult for digital IP reforms to be passed in domestic legislatures due to vocal opposition and processes that are becoming increasingly polarized.

Sara Bannerman, assistant professor of communications and multimedia at McMaster University, then shifted the discussion to the role of IP law in the economies of so-called rising states. In a paper co-authored with Jean-Frédéric Morin, professor of political science at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, Bannerman discusses how South Korea and Japan moved from having economies based on importing IP-intensive goods to “innovation exporters” that favour strong IP protection. Borrowing Sell’s metaphor, Bannerman and Morin ask, “what would happen if, in the course of this pursuit, one of the mice progressively transformed into a cat?” Their paper finds that prior to becoming IP-exporters, these countries relied upon relatively lax positions towards foreign IP as a means of benefitting from technology transfers. However, once IP based domestic industries were established, concern shifted towards stronger IP protection in order to benefit and maintain these domestic champions.

The final presenter, Gabriel J. Michael, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science at The George Washington University, focused on how countries in the global South are turning towards traditional knowledge (TK) protections as a reaction to the international IP regime advanced by the WTO—in the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement—and the US via bilateral and plurilateral trade agreements. In an exhaustive mixed-methods survey, Mr. Michael finds that there are now more than 70 countries that are protecting TK through national legislation. He describes this as a form of “reactive diffusion” where countries enact TK legislation to increase their domestic advantage in certain sectors, as a counter balance to disadvantages imposed by international obligations to increase IP protection in other areas.

Having surveyed different, albeit overlapping, aspects of the current state of global copyright, IP, and politics, the panel ended with comments from discussant Rosemary J. Coombe, the Canada Research Chair in Law, Communication, and Culture at York University. (Note: Professor Coombe is the Chair of the author’s dissertation committee) Professor Coombe has written extensively about the intersections of copyright and IP law, culture, political theory, and anthropology. Her comments helped tie the papers together and raised further questions regarding the future of copyright and IP law in a global context. In particular, she highlighted how attention must be given to local, community, and domestic circumstances in order to understand the rights, norms, and concerns that various “stakeholders” bring to these scenarios.

The future of global copyright and IP regimes is broad, in terms of the issues at stake, and far from certain. This panel highlighted some of the key issues at play and emphasized the need for continuing research in order to understand the current state and future make-up of IP law.

Joseph F. Turcotte is an IPilogue Editor, a PhD Candidate and SSHRC Doctoral Fellow in the Communication & Culture Program (Politics & Policy) at York University, and a Nathanson Graduate Fellow at the Jack & Mae Nathanson Centre on Transnational Human Rights, Crime and Security at Osgoode Hall Law School.

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