Book Review: The Elgar Companion to Intellectual Property and the Sustainable Development Goals

This is a review of the book, The Elgar Companion to Intellectual Property and the Sustainable Development Goals, edited by Bita Amani, Caroline B. Ncube and Matthew Rimmer. Nearly a decade after the establishment of the seventeen UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in Agenda 2030, this volume brings together 25 excellent contributions to reflect on the role of intellectual property in the progress of the SDGs.

A copy of the book (The Elgar Companion to Intellectual Property and the Sustainable Development Goals) next to a soft toy wearing a yellow jacket and hat, which resembles a Womble, the fictional pointy-nosed, furry creatures that featured on British television in the 1970s which aim to help the environment by collecting and recycling rubbish.
That's not a Kat...
but it does care about the environment!

This short blog post cannot do justice to all of the chapters in this collection, so the review will instead highlight five chapters that cut across different SDGs and areas of intellectual property to illustrate the breadth and richness of this volume.

Goal 2: End Hunger and Achieve Sustainable Agriculture

In Chapter 2, S. Ali Malik addresses "SDG 2: zero hunger, food and plant-related intellectual property, and access to plant genetic resources." He highlights how activism from Indian farmers and civil society groups shaped global policy around plant variety protection and food security. 

Malik shows how the TRIPS Agreement allowed flexibility for sui generis protections over plant varieties, which was harnessed during the development of the Indian Plant Variety Protection and Farmers' Rights Act 2001. This legislation was "lauded as the most progressive iteration of farmer's rights in the world," although it now faces the challenges of digital genomic sequencing ("dematerialisation") and data-driven plant breeding, which have ramifications for many areas of intellectual property. 

Goal 3: Healthy Lives and Wellbeing

In Chapter 5, Jorge L. Contreras evaluates "Genetic patents and the Sustainable Development Goals." The chapter considers the fundamental tension between patents as an incentive for innovation, and as a barrier to access to patented products. He reviews the history of the patenting of human, plant, and pathogen genetics in order to highlight that patents may not have as significant a role in incentivising genetic research as commonly assumed. 

Contreras discusses how patent pools and non-exclusive licensing can give rise to financial rewards whilst also supporting the SDGs, using the examples of Golden Rice (genetically modified rice with high vitamin A content) and genomic research tools. He concludes with clear recommendations for policymakers, such as encouraging the World Health Organization to play a more active role in facilitating the formation of patent pools with respect to genomic inventions that are critical to public health or food supply. 

Goal 4: Quality Education

In Chapter 7, Paul Harpur and Michael Ashley Stein discuss "Prioritising inclusion: the nexus of disability rights, Sustainable Development Goals on education, and intellectual property interests." They draw on their significant body of work on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and the Marrakesh Treaty to analyse the recent South African constitutional case, Blind SA v Minister of Trade, Industry and Competition

Harpur and Stein focus on how these treaties and cases impact the educational experience of children with disabilities. Copyright law exceptions have previously enabled some, but not equal, access to copyright works in accessible formats for persons with print disabilities. They demonstrate that recent legal developments have helped to rebalance the priorities between human rights and intellectual property interests to ensure greater access to books, but emphasise that there is still much more work to do to achieve truly equal educational experiences for children with disabilities.

Goal 15: Life on Land

In Chapter 20, co-authors Daniel F. Robinson, Miri Raven, and Simon Lumsden discuss "Epistemic injustice: intellectual property, biodiversity and traditional knowledge." They give particular attention to patents and access and benefit sharing under the Convention on Biological Diversity to demonstrate how these laws operate to exclude Indigenous peoples' own ontologies and customary laws, and how the law:

[treats] Indigenous people's knowledge as mere information that only comes to be legitimate knowledge when it is used to benefit the ends of corporations or institutions; or else by assuming that Indigenous knowledge in a testimonial context, such as a court, is inferior on the basis of an identity prejudice.

The authors draw on examples of the patenting of plants from the Pacific to show that international laws have failed to address how dematerialisation perpetuates epistemic injustice. These critiques are especially important given the ongoing debates at WIPO and the upcoming Diplomatic Conference in May (discussed by this Kat here). 

Goal 17: Global Partnerships

In Chapter 22, Titilayo Adebola examines "Branding as a tool to promote geographical indication exports and sustainable development in Africa." The chapter highlights the role of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA), which is finalising an annex on GIs to the AfCFTA Intellectual Property Protocol, and may facilitate cross-border protection of GIs. This provides opportunities to foster intra-African socio-economic cooperation in ways that promote sustainable development. 

Adebola demonstrates the untapped potential of African GIs through the example of Ogogoro in Nigeria (known as Akpeteshie in Ghana), an Indigenous drink made by distilling fermented raffia palm tree juice, which had been deemed an 'illicit gin' and banned by British colonial authorities. Drawing on interviews and her previous work in this area, she explores the branding strategy behind "Pedro's Ogogoro" to illustrate how increased government support for GIs could boost Africa's exports and sustainable development. 


The book concludes by noting that whilst "intellectual property is but one policy instrument for achieving welfare gains, it is one premised on rights of exclusion when the SDGs demand greater inclusion and access to global public goods." The editors outline how intellectual property can be part of the "blueprints for a better world" by summarising how the chapters in this volume speak to each of the 17 SDGs. They then provide "blue sky solutions" in a Coda that reminds us that "inequality is not inevitable, it is a political choice," and we will need to reconceptualise of the role of intellectual property in order to make different political choices that would achieve the SDGs. Overall, this volume makes an important intervention in the debate about sustainable development and the role of intellectual property in achieving a better future for everyone.

P.S. Readers who are perplexed about the relevance of the furry creature in the above image might like to read Wombles Ltd v Wombles Skips Ltd [1977] RPC 99.


Published: 2024

Format: Hardback, Ebook

Extent: 702 pages

ISBN: 978 1 80392 522 6

Imprint: Edward Elgar Publishing

Book Review: The Elgar Companion to Intellectual Property and the Sustainable Development Goals Book Review: The Elgar Companion to Intellectual Property and the Sustainable Development Goals Reviewed by Jocelyn Bosse on Sunday, April 14, 2024 Rating: 5

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