Patents, colonization, and recolonization

An oil painting: Christopher Columbus kneels on a rocky shore holding a flag, in the background is the sea with several ships.
Image: “Christoper Columbus arrives in America”, 1893. The image is in the Public Domain, and more info can be found at Wikimedia.

An excerpt from “Protect or Plunder? Understanding Intellectual Property Rights” by Vandana Shiva:

‘Litterae patents’ were first issued in Europe in the sixth century. Charters and letters were given by European monarchs for the discovery and conquest of foreign lands. They were used for colonization and for establishing import monopolies. This is evident in the charter granted to Christopher Columbus… to assert rights to all ‘islands and mainlands’ before their discovery. Given that Columbus’s voyage was supposed to have been to India, it is interesting to reflect on the fact that what Columbus carried as a piece of parchment was the potential right to own India. It was instead used to conquer and own the lands of America’s indigenous people who have been called Indians ever since as a reminder of Columbus’s mistaken ‘discovery’.

Patents have, through history, thus been associated with colonization. At the beginning of the colonization of the world by Europe, they were aimed at conquest of territory; now they are aimed at the conquest of economies… Patents are often viewed as tools of recolonization by the Third World but are viewed as a ‘natural’ right, as conquest was during colonialism, by western powers. There are differences of course in yesterday’s colonization and today’s recolonization. Religion is not the ultimate justification for today’s conquest. Recolonization is a ‘secular’ project. Territory, gold and minerals are no longer the objects of conquest. Markets and economic systems are what have to be controlled. Knowledge itself has to be converted into property, just as land was during colonization. That is why today ‘patents’ have been covered by the broader label of ‘intellectual property’ or property in terms of ‘products of the mind’. Despite the fact that it was inhabited by indigenous peoples, land that was ‘discovered’ was treated as ‘terra nullius’ or Empty Land because it did not have white European habitation.

“Neem tree” by Mamun2a, licensed Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic.

In 1995, the European Patent Office (EPO) granted a patent on an anti-fungal product derived from neem to the US Department of Agriculture and W. R. Grace and Company.[13] The Indian government challenged the patent when it was granted, claiming that the process for which the patent had been granted had actually been in use in India for over 2,000 years. In 2000, the EPO ruled in India’s favour but W. R. Grace appealed, claiming that prior art about the product had never been published in a scientific journal. On 8 March 2005, that appeal was lost and the EPO revoked the Neem patent.[13]