Book review: The Intellectual Property of Nations

This is a review of The Intellectual Property of Nations: Sociological and Historical Perspectives on a Modern Legal Institution by Laura R. Ford - Assistant Professor of Sociology at Bard College, New York. 


In this book, Laura Ford draws on macro-historical sociological theories, to trace the development of intellectual property from antiquity to the modern nation-state system, showing how this infrastructure of power emerged. In doing so, using comparative and historical evidence, this groundbreaking work - representing nearly two decades of study -  reflects on the role of intellectual property in our contemporary political communities and societies, on the close relationship between law and religion, and on the extent to which the law's obliging force depends on ancient, written traditions.

It is a story of great beauty and tragedy. It involves a vision and a hope for law and legal communities that are intellectually beautiful, and it involves the tragedy of human fallibility, moral compromises and unintended consequences, the gap between ideal and reality in law that no one has yet figured out how to close.

Ford considers intellectual property as the latest in a long string of developments linking property to governing communities across time, grounded in the economic sociology theory of property of Max Weber (who was trained as a lawyer and economic historian!). For Weber, property arises where it is first enclosed, then appropriated and protected by a group. As such, Ford explains, governing communities have been in the business of incentivising desirable activities for a long time, using legal instruments that look a lot like IP. In this context IP is described as “basically a privilege that is granted to the member of a group, because that member has done something that is desirable.” Contextually, this privilege comes with all the cultural and political powers of property, and so,Ford sets out to explore the complex and multifaceted cultural tradition formed from a synthesis of Roman and Biblical law. 

Intellectual property, in other words, is a legal institution that taps into the deep cultural well-springs, a semantic link between national hopes for the future and a participation in well-being that is interpretively connected with property.

Chapter 1, Legal Institutions and Social Power: Setting the Stage, provides the reader with an introduction to contemporary IP law, the pervasiveness of IP in our everyday lives, and the theoretical framework that shapes the book. Chapter 2, Legal Orders and Social Performance: Founding Facebook, highlights the importance of IP, particularly patents, for the formation of Facebook. The aim of this chapter is to elaborate on the social conditions and effects of patents as instruments of legal power. 

Chapter 3, Instruments of Legal Power in the Roman Republic, transports the reader to Hellenistic Rome and the issuance of a legal privilege from the Senate of Rome to the polis of Delphi. The chapter demonstrates how empirical formality enabled ancient legal documents to work as instruments of legal power. Chapter 4, Semantic Legal Ordering: Idealizing Roman Law, focuses on the transformative period of Roman history in which the republic collapsed and the empire emerged. It tells the stories of Caesar and Cicero to discuss two prevailing methods of acquiring social power in ancient Rome. Chapter 5, Cultural Transformations: Christianizing Legal Power, traces the development of Christianity within the empire. Chapter 6, Privileges and Immunities in a Sacramentalizing Order, Chapter 7, Administrative Kingship and Covenantal Bonds: Early Roots of Intellectual Property in England, and Chapter 8, Intellectual Property in a Nationalizing Order, then move through the realisation of a new set of transformative social possibilities in Christian (and post-Christin) legality. 

Then, in Chapter 9, Cultural Transformations: Naturalizing Intellectual Property, Ford reaches the emergence of modern intellectual property, enabled by a cultural transformation. Chapter 10, Semantic Legal Ordering: Idealizing Intellectual Property, discovers how natural legality was radicalised in the French Revolution. The American context returns in Chapter 11, Instruments of Legal Power in the American Republic, looking at how IP developed from within a nationalising state during the nineteenth century. Chapter 12, Legal Institutions and Social Performance: Founding a Global Order, focuses on the international extension of modern IP. Ford concludes, “intellectual property is playing a vitally important role in contemporary forms of social power, whether these are cultural, economic, military or political. In demonstrating constituted nation-states, and in a nationally constituted world system, we need urgently to think together about this.”

Well, this is a pleasant surprise!
Image: Sharon Brogan
The delightfully refreshing thing about reading a book written by a sociology scholar for a change is Ford’s authentic writing style that we so rarely allow ourselves as legal writers. This book is a work of art, that reads like a novel, but blows your mind like a documentary on a topic that you thought you were already schooled in! The book will appeal to any reader interested in broadening their contextual understanding of intellectual property, as well as those considering the globalised future of IP. As Ford explains, the book is an effort to tell the story of how intellectual property, as we know it, was formed from older privilege-granting practices. It is a story about how our modern nation-state project was formed from a combination of elements, and about how intellectual property was built into that project. As such, it is unique in its offering of a combination of sociological and legal perspectives on the emergence of intellectual property.

Intellectual property, like law and the nation-state project, is lovely and brutal. It is very human, and this means that it involves the quest for meaning, freedom and belonging that drives our tragic, human history.

Publication date: 2021

Paperback: £29.99

ISBN: 9781316648483

Also available in other formats: Hardback, eBook

Book review: The Intellectual Property of Nations Book review: The Intellectual Property of Nations Reviewed by Hayleigh Bosher on Tuesday, September 28, 2021 Rating: 5

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