In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Intellectual Property in International Relations

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • NGO Resources
  • Rights Holders’ Resources
  • Journals
  • Historical Perspectives
  • The Patent System
  • Copyright
  • Negotiating Forums
  • Implementation
  • Contemporary Perspectives on Piracy and Counterfeiting
  • Enforcement
  • Public Health
  • Agriculture and Biodiversity
  • Human Rights
  • Contemporary Critiques

Political Science Intellectual Property in International Relations
Susan K. Sell
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 May 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 May 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0061


Intellectual property refers to patents, copyrights, and trademarks. In making property of knowledge goods, scarcity is created for resources that were not formally scarce. Intellectual property rights make commodities of knowledge goods so that they can be bought, sold, withheld, utilized, or licensed. Once an arcane and technical topic, intellectual property has become an important focus of contestation in international relations. Technological change, including the digital revolution, economic globalization, and the emergence of a knowledge- and services-based economy, has led rights holders to press for greater regulatory harmonization and higher standards of protection worldwide. Since the adoption of a legally binding, enforceable multilateral intellectual property treaty in the trade regime in 1994, deep fault lines have emerged between countries that are net exporters of intellectual property and those that are net importers of intellectual property. The emergence of free and open source software and creative commons licenses has challenged traditional proprietary models of innovation and cultural production. Clashes between producers and consumers, campaigns against end-users, and controversies over the impact of intellectual property rights on public health, agriculture, development, technology transfer, human rights, biodiversity, climate change, culture, research, science, and the knowledge commons have activated an increasingly broad range of stakeholders. States, multinational corporations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), universities, consumers, and international organizations all have been drawn into these controversies. Designations of property rights—what counts as property, who can claim ownership and on what terms—create winners and losers and, thus, are inherently political. While patents, copyrights, and trademarks dominate the literature, other important intellectual property rights include geographical indications, plant variety protections, and sui generis protection, such as that covering the mask works in semi-conductor chips. The expansion of the scope, duration, and subject matter of intellectual property rights has been likened to a second enclosure movement, which has raised concerns about access to, and implications for, innovation. While legal scholars have dominated the study of intellectual property, in recent years international relations scholars have begun to analyze the politics of this dynamic area of global business regulation.

General Overviews

Maskus and Reichman 2005 is an excellent introduction to the politics of intellectual property that includes voices from leading scholars, and Kapcyznski and Krikorian 2010 is a substantive introduction to core intellectual property issues written by activists and international civil servants from around the globe. Works expressing concern over too much ownership of knowledge goods (Boyle 1996) and raising questions about the political process include May 2010 and Drahos and Braithwaite 2007. Coombe 1998 offers an ethnographic perspective on the interplay of law and culture. Merges 2011 offers a philosophical perspective in favor of intellectual property rights. Good introductory works include Weber 2004, to open source, and Marlin-Bennett 2004, to the implications of intellectual property for data protection, privacy, and information; these works are suitable for classroom use and research.

  • Boyle, James. Shamans, Software and Spleens: Law and the Construction of the Information Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.

    Pathbreaking book that raises profound questions about the construction of ownership. Boyle’s wide-ranging exploration covers traditional medicine, privacy, fair use, ownership of information, and human cells. Critiques the romantic notion of authorship as a detriment to innovation, open debate, and poor countries. Author is an original board member of Creative Commons.

  • Coombe, Rosemary. The Cultural Life of Intellectual Properties: Authorship, Appropriation, and the Law. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998.

    Anthropologist and law professor Coombe offers an ethnographic analysis of commodification and the meaning of logos, brand names, celebrity images, and advertising. She explores the commodification of cultural environments and the role of law in consumer culture. Rejecting subject/object dualism, she emphasizes the dialogic nature of culture and law.

  • Drahos, Peter, and John Braithwaite. Information Feudalism: Who Owns the Knowledge Economy? New York: New Press, 2007.

    A critical examination of the politics of intellectual property protection, raising the issue of regulatory capture. Expresses concern about the distributional effects of expanding intellectual property rights.

  • Kapczynski, Amy, and Gaëlle Krikorian, eds. Access to Knowledge in the Age of Intellectual Property. New York: Zone, 2010.

    Definitive compendium of essays by leading scholars, activists, and international civil servants on the front lines of the access to knowledge (A2K) movement. Covers huge range of relevant topics.

  • Marlin-Bennett, Renée. Knowledge Power: Intellectual Property, Information and Privacy. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2004.

    Accessible introduction to many aspects of intellectual property. Could be used as a text for freshman and undergraduates. Lends itself well to class discussion.

  • Maskus, Keith, and Jerome Reichman, eds. International Public Goods and Transfer of Technology under a Globalized Intellectual Property Regime. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511494529

    Compendium of top scholars of law, economics, and political science with commentary. Broad representation of perspectives. Addresses technology transfer, traditional knowledge, public goods, cultural industries, competition (or antitrust) law, and dispute settlement in the World Trade Organization. Suitable for upper-division undergraduate as well as graduate students in political economy, trade, anthropology, public health, and law.

  • May, Christopher. A Global Political Economy of Intellectual Property Rights: The New Enclosures. 2d ed. New York: Routledge, 2010.

    Critical introduction to the global politics of intellectual property. In-depth discussion of diverse justifications for intellectual property protection. Highlights the political construction of intellectual property rights and the negative implications of diminishing access to the knowledge commons. Suitable as a text in courses on the politics of intellectual property and international political economy.

  • Merges, Robert. Justifying Intellectual Property. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.4159/harvard.9780674061125

    Examines ideas about intellectual property that past philosophers and contemporary scholars (Locke, Kant, Rawls, Nozick, and Waldron) offer to provide insights into the future of intellectual property in a digital and networked age. By combining a justification for appropriation (Locke), individual freedom (Kant), and distributive justice (Rawls) concerns, Merges offers mid-level principles for intellectual property and stresses that property holders’ reward should be proportional to the holders’ effort or value. Ultimately pro-property rights.

  • Weber, Stephen. The Success of Open Source. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.

    Accessible account of the Open Source movement analyzing it as a solution to a cooperation problem. Examines micro foundations of individual motivations to contribute, organization theory of networks versus hierarchies, and political economy of Open Source. Useful for upper division undergraduates, graduates, and scholars of political economy, institutions, organization theory, and intellectual property.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.