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Intellectual Property Rights: A Critical History

Christopher May and Susan K. Sell
Intellectual Property Rights: A Critical History
ISBN: 978-1-58826-363-6
ISBN: 978-1-62637-002-9
2005/253 pages/LC: 2005011010
iPolitics: Global Challenges in the Information Age

"The debates outlined in this book will be of vital concern for years to come." —Shane Mulligan, Political Studies Review

"Excellent.... a historically grounded appreciation of the contemporary political economy of intellectual property rights. [This] well-written and detailed account suggests that the future of intellectual property law will be as contested as its past."—Duncan Matthews, E.I.P.R.

"Any[one] interested in issues of intellectual property rights must have historical precedent firmly in hand: and there's no better place to obtain the whole of this precedent than in Intellectual Property Rights: A Critical History.... A 'must' for any college-level audience addressing the issue of who owns the rights to intellectual discoveries—-and how."—Diane C. Donovan, Midwest Book Review

"The two leading scholars of intellectual property rights in international relations join forces to create a definitive political economy: historically informed, theoretically sophisticated, and politically insightful."—Robert A. Denemark, University of Delaware


With intellectual property widely acknowledged today as a key component of economic development, those accused of stealing knowledge and information are also charged with undermining industrial innovation, artistic creativity, and the availability of information itself. How valid are these claims? Has the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) Agreement ushered in a new, better era? Christopher May and Susan Sell trace the history of social conflict and political machinations surrounding the making of property out of knowledge.

Ranging from ancient commerce in Greek poems to present-day controversies about online piracy and the availability of AIDS drugs in the poorest countries, May and Sell present intellectual property law as a continuing process in which particular conceptions of rights and duties are institutionalized; each settlement prompts new disputes, policy shifts, and new disputes again. They also examine the post-TRIPs era in the context of this process. Their account of two thousand years of technological advances, legal innovation, and philosophical arguments about the character of knowledge production suggests that the future of intellectual property law will be as contested as its past.


Christopher May is professor of political economy at Lancaster University. His recent publications include The Information Society: A Sceptical View and A Global Political Economy of Intellectual Property Rights: The New Enclosures? The late Susan K. Sell was professor emerita of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. She is author of Private Power, Public Law: The Globalization of Intellectual Property Rights and Power and Ideas: North-South Politics of Intellectual Property and Antitrust.


  • Why You Need to Know About Intellectual Property.
  • Ideas and Technology.
  • The Emergence of Intellectual Property Rights.
  • Commerce vs. Romantic Notions of the Authorship and Invention.
  • The Nineteenth Century: Technological Development and International Law.
  • The Twentieth Century: Intellectual Property Rights Consolidated.
  • The Twenty-First Century: TRIPs and Beyond.
  • Forgetting History is Not an Option.

No rights in South Asia.