Package Deal du Jour: Biopiracy

Thursday, March 30, 2006

I found this TCS Daily article on an environmentalist conference recently held in Brazil notable for bringing to my attention an interesting example of a package deal called "biopiracy".

Let us first review just what, exactly, a package deal is. From a footnote by Leonard Peikoff to Ayn Rand's essay "The Metaphysical Versus the Man-Made", in Philosophy: Who Needs It:

"Package-dealing" is the fallacy of failing to discriminate crucial differences. It consists of treating together, as parts of a single conceptual whole or "package," elements which differ essentially in nature, truth-status, importance, or value.
Ayn Rand elaborates further in "How to Read (and Not to Write)" in The Ayn Rand Letter (I,26,3). "[Package-dealing employs] the shabby old gimmick of equating opposites by substituting nonessentials for their essential characteristics."

The article does not itself attempt to give a concise definition of "biopiracy", so I use this one, from Word Spy:
The patenting of plants, genes, and other biological products that are indigenous to a foreign country.
Uh. But isn't every country "foreign" to some other country? And while the "bio-" makes sense, why is technological innovation -- even if it consists only of discovering a hitherto unknown, naturally-occurring value "piracy"? Why not "biodiscovery"? Or "bioinnovation"? Or "biodevelopment"?

The article provides our answer, by using the term in its full intellectual context:
Today's version is the cargo cult is that forests and jungles of the developing world hold bounteous lodes of "Green Gold" - the genetic resources of the Earth: wondrous plants, insects, snakes and barks that traditional peoples for thousands of years have used to cure illness and fend off starvation.

Their right [sic] to this cargo is threatened by "biopiracy". This is a political term which means that foreigners (mainly multinational companies, of course) obtain these products (even buy them in the local market), take them away and create blockbuster drugs that earn billions.

To stop this "biopiracy" governments in Africa and Latin America, including Brazil, and India propose an international treaty which will "improve access" (i.e. stop foreigners) to these genetic resource and increase benefits (by holding up patents and other intellectual property if any shard of a genetic resource is used in any product patented), until they get their fair share. [bold added]
In other words, the natural biological resources of countries "foreign" to developed nations (i.e., the nations having the wherewithal to unlock the potential of these resources) are "pirated" if some innovator from the developed world has the temerity to develop said resources without cutting some local cheiftain or junta part of the profit.

This is a classic example of a package deal. Here, a particular type of innovation (bioscientific discovery) and a particular type of crime (piracy) are treated as if they are part of a coherent whole. The opposite notions of (1) the intellectual property of the scientists and (2) the stolen loot of a third world kleptocracy are treated as if they are the same thing. This is done by causing the reader to focus on nonessentials: where the scientist and his subject matter came from, the value of his discovery, and the poverty of the people who sat around the very same tropical plant for years without taking any interest in it whatsoever, for example.

As with any fallacy, the goal is to avoid having to make an argument. The goal here is clearly to use multiculturalism as a means of getting Western countries to simply hand over the values produced by their scientists to the governments of the third world. This means: to violate the property rights of their scientists. This is why, as the article rightly points out, if this idea is allowed to wreck intellectual property law, innovation in this area will grind to a halt and the natural biological resources of the third world will remain underutilized.

-- CAV


Anonymous said...

This is a dilemma for both the western and developing countries. I do not support your over simplification of the matter. I also disagree with your using the words ' local cheiftain or junta' since both Brazil and India have functioning democracy.

Gus Van Horn said...


Thank you for stopping by and commenting. While I disagree with parts of what you say, you are correct to point out that I could have made my case more thoroughly.

I have to disagree that permitting someone to retain the fruits of their labor -- be it physical or mental -- poses a "dilemma". If it is, it is only because the notions are so widespread that (1) intellectual property is not "real" property and (2) large companies somehow do not have property rights.

A scientist who works for a large multinational enjoys many benefits from the economy of scale, from being able to purchase expensive equipment for his research to having many other expenses paid for, to -- if his interests are esoteric enough -- having a job at all. Unlike the government, in the case of government-supported scientists, his company has a vested interest in his work succeeding, so blind alleys for drug development are more likely avoided in favor of productive avenues.

All of these advantages would disappear if governments decided they could plunder the wealth of large multinationals in an effort, supposedly, to improve the lives of their citizens.

Furthermore, while my use of the terms "cheiftain" and "junta" seem gratuitous, they are not. Freedom does not exist in pure democracies (i.e., mob rule), but in societies that respect individual rights. While India and Brazil are better off than many other third world nations in having a tradition of representative government, both nations suffer because their governments do not adequately protect the rights of their most productive citizens. To the degree that any "democracy" violates the rights of its citizens, it deserves to be criticized, which is my whole point, as roughly-made as it was. I spare my own country no criticism when it dishonors its own history of protecting freedom.

I hope this makes my point clearer.


Anonymous said...

You talk about multiculturalism forcing corporations in developed countries to hand over the fruits of their labours to third world countries. Well, what about Western corporations stealing something that didn't belong to them in the first place? They can use the herbs if they want, but they can't patent them. These herbs and crops (eg Basmati Rice) are open source. Anyone has the right to harvest them, grow them and utilise them as they see fit.
I remember the case with Basmati Rice which a Texas Corporation tried to patent. This would have denied small Indian farmers who have grown this strain of rice for centuries, their livelihood. Simply speaking, the Texas corporation didn't invent Basmati Rice and so had no right to try and own it. They could however try and grow it and sell it.

Gus Van Horn said...


When I originally wrote this post, I had missed the possibility that today's re-reading raises: That of patenting already-existent plants!

I certainly did not and do not support the idea of patenting anything that evolved in nature, and if this is happening, patent law needs to be reformed.

Thank you for bringing this to my attention. Capitalism is all about the protection of individual rights. This noble goal cannot be served by non-objective law.