In a recent Papal Encyclical letter, Pope Benedict XVI condemned intellectual property rights as contributing toward wealth inequality.  The Pope asserted in the letter that “[o]n the part of rich countries there is excessive zeal for protecting knowledge through an unduly rigid assertion of the right to intellectual property, especially in the field of health care.”  This comment was only a tiny part of the letter, but it was representative of the Pope’s overall theme: the world needs a new global structure based on ethical and social responsibility along with respect for the dignity of the worker.  The letter criticized strong patent rights, explaining that reliance “solely on monetary greed as an incentive does not lead to the right kind of development and actually creates instability.”  The head of the Catholic Church is not alone in questioning the morality of patents–U.S. Protestant religious leaders have done the same.

Knowledge Ecology Notes explains the significance of Papal Encyclicals:

While Papal Encyclicals do not determine official doctrine for the Church, they do offer a chance to annunciate the personal thoughts of the Pope and encourage specific priorities that the Pope wishes to set for the Church. Encyclicals such as the Caritas in Veritate are traditionally addressed to church heads, and not to the laiety at large (though the current one seems to be an exception, and all are made available publicly). They are the second most important statement that can be issued by the Pope (after an Apostolic Constitution, which proclaims dogma and/or issues of canon law).

This encyclical came a day before President Obama was to attend a Group of Eight summit in L’Aquila, Italy, to discuss the global economic crisis.  The timing indicates that Pope Benedict XVI aimed “to insert his voice into that discussion by focusing on the moral underpinnings of the meltdown.”

In response, the Intellectual Property Owners Association has issued the following statement:  “IPO and others are working to educate on the incentives that IP rights provide for advancing knowledge and creating jobs.”

It is interesting to see the Pope attack intellectual property.  Opponents of the Pope’s viewpoint–like the IPO–would argue that IP rights, as a profit-driven incentive, foster innovation.  The question, I suppose, is innovation for whom?  Pope Benedict XVI would posit that this “innovation” only results in greater wealth for the wealthy at the expense of the poor.

At this time of economic tumultuousness, with such profound opportunity for the restructuring of great swaths of society, it looks like the Pope wants his voice to be heard.  I wonder what alternative to IP rights the Pope would propose that would do a better job of fostering “the right kind of development.”

George Gaskin

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4 Responses to The Pope vs. Intellectual Property Rights

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  3. SR says:

    I wonder how the Pope thinks we should incentivize innovation. While the monopoly system has some unsavory effects, it definitely seems more effective than waiting for people to develop things like vaccines simply on moral imperative. It is important to spread the intellectual wealth to those who need it, but I doubt that the way to do that is abolishing the current system.

  4. jeffrey says:

    The alternative is surely a non-monopolized market, the free enterprise system that delivers most all goods and services without recourse to regulations that artificially restrict supply and rivalry. Innovators always win in this system but their winnings are not artificially prolonged through government grants of privilege (patents). The market always and everywhere dissipates profits, and that’s a normal and good thing. Why should this one sector be exempt? The Pope is precisely right.