[knowledgelab] Can coffee trademarks save Africa? // Indymedia article linking to klab wiki

jmp m.pedersen at lancaster.ac.uk
Thu Oct 26 15:15:18 BST 2006


There is a post (pasted below) on Indymedia, which links to the
knowledge lab wiki: http://www.indymedia.org.uk/en/2006/10/354382.html -
and which is related to the upcoming
http://knowledgelab.org.uk/wiki/KLab9 theme about authorship and the
laws that regulate innovation etc etc.

Can coffee trademarks save Africa?

Commoner | 26.10.2006 14:59 | Analysis | Social Struggles | Workers'

Alongside the otherwise successful evolution of the Free/Libre Open
Source Software, there is a range of commentators on the digital
economy, or the socalled knowledge economy, who help sustain the
conventional, capitalist mode of production. Business as usual, the
heart of the problem concerns the sanctity and the universal application
of private property. This leads from an angry impulse reading today's
Guardian - and a quick rant - into a more theoretical territory :)

In today's Guardian there is a story about coffee and copyright:

It is a story that uses morality to assert or entrench in the public
imagination the inherent good-ness of copyright by pitching Ethiopia,
whence coffee originates, against a coffee shop chain whose "whose
annual turnover is equivalent to about three quarters of Ethiopia's
entire gross domestic product".

We are told that Ethiopian coffee producers "sell organic coffee for
less than £1 a pound but that pound can make 52 specials in coffee shops
selling for £2 each, meaning the retailer is selling it for £104. The
people who are producing this in Ethiopia don't have enough food, clean
water or health centres."

In other words, if the original coffee beans, Sidamo, Harar and
Yirgacheffe, were protected under trademark laws, then, so it is
estimated by Oxfam, Ethiopia could make an annual £47 million - and
there is no doubt that some help to self-help for the Ethiopian economy
would be a good thing. But is trademark law something worth celebrating
as a saviour of anyone, of anything?

How come the coffee shop can buy the coffee so cheaply in the first
place? Who would actually benefit from trademark law protection, would
it be the plantation labourers? Or would it rather be lawyers in office
buildings in the capital of Ethiopia (or elsewhere)? Also, why not tax
the coffee shop chain, -a global tax on global corporations for global

Trademark law is a sub-category of private property: it allows the
holder of a trademark to exclude others from using whatever is
protected, or it allows them to license the use of their protected
trademark to others. In this case a network coffee producers could then
get a sip of every cup of profit that Starfuckers make on exploiting
cheap labour in Ethiopia (and elsewhere). But is privatisation of names
and places and algorithms or techniques the way forward - is
privatisation a good idea at all?

Consider something else: copyright. Also related to private property in
that it excludes anyone else than the creator of a work to copy it. In
other words, filesharing is illegal because it breaches the copyright of
Sony, Time Warner and other such corporations. When Corporate Media
speak about the evils of filesharing they will pitch poor musicians
against amoral downloaders - recall: poor Ethiopians against Starfuckers
- but is that where it is at? Without wanting to go into detail about
the example of music download and the cut that musicians get (suffice to
say that while Time/Warner is making a lot of money, they seem to share
it with the likes of Madonna and Bowie and not your local, independent
venue or musicians) - what we can see here is a pattern: time and time
again the idea of private property, the capitalist model of an economy,
is being preached as the way to save the world. It can save the poor in
Ethiopia (except it can't, 'cause it is more likely to line the pockets
of some lawyers educated at Harvard or Yale or Oxford some other Holy
Grail of Capitalism) and it can rescue musical culture from the evil
file sharers. Or can it?

Or should the tables perhaps be turned completely? As a matter of fact
that is exactly what Free Software is all about. It is based on
Copyleft, which is a hack of copyright:  http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/ .
The idea is to use the concept of protection inherent in copyright,
namely that a creator has a right to determine herself the limits of her
creation - and Copyleft limits the use of a given creation within a
community, not in the name of an individual (although, one aspect of
copyright, perhaps the greater incentive for innovation, namely
attribution, remains intact in the concept of Copyleft, so that whatever
you have created you will be recognised for). By being focused on
community and perpetuating sharing and cooperation - on the basis of a
subversion, or hack, of copyright, the idea of copyleft - and the
particular example of Free Software - opens a whole new understanding of
ownership forms: it is neither communist, nor capitalist and so it
breaks with the old bi-polar paradigm that we know best as the Cold War.
(For more info see this article, which is already three years old:
http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/11.11/opensource_pr.html - or start
here with the basics:
http://gnudist.gnu.org/philosophy/why-copyleft.html - or here:
http://www.free-culture.cc/freecontent/ )

Going down the road less travelled, the Free Software movement paves the
way for a different economy by successfully showing that a mode of
production different from the conventional capitalist version is
possible - and that it might indeed be a stronger and socially and
developmentally (innovation, distribution) better way of organising a
world in which cyberspace gains more and more significance.

But, just as it may be argued that Oxfam keeps wars going by feeding
those lost and recruitable in conflict zones, so do they applaud
capitalism and the status quo of power in other realms. Although some
very good work has been done by Oxfam policy advisor Peter Drahos (see
for example this summary of a very important, in empirical terms, book:
 http://www.thecornerhouse.org.uk/item.shtml?x=85821 ), his conclusions
reassert the desirability and necessity of what he calls a weak
Intellectual Property Regime. (Consult the social history written by
people like E.P. Thompson and Peter Linebaugh to get a grasp of the
violent origins of the modern (capitalist) world.)

There are many supporters of Information Freedom and Information
Commons, but there are few who are ready, and also, of course, given
air-time and publishing deals if they elaborate their defence of such
freedoms and community forms to question the political structures and
social construction that created the private property forms that
threaten Information Freedom. As McCann writes:

“Simply declaring the existence or the desired existence of an
"(information) commons" does not suddenly sweep away the political
baggage that comes along with each of these issues. But it is not
uncommon, consistent with the wonderful dynamics that any condition of
hegemony tends to imply, that such issues are often conveniently swept
under the carpet, shrouded in the mists of denial, or immunised against
criticism by the blinding light of the best of intentions. Discourses of
"the (information) commons" allow people to purport that they are
focusing attention on the fundamental political implications of new
technologies, intellectual property laws, free market economics, and
American democracy without ever really taking any of those implications
seriously enough to challenge them at base.” (McCann, 2005 - Read the
rest of McCann's article:
http://www.beyondthecommons.com/enclosurewithin.pdf ).

In other words: information can only be free if private, exclusive
ownership in the tangible realm is severely limited. Ethiopian peasants
and tribes in bonded labour are not set free by an expansion of
plantation owners' profit margin - they are set free if they share in
the ownership of the coffee plantations and the beans that they help
grow and harvest, and thereby are in a position to bargain with
Starfuckers for a better price - or even better, if they work with a
network of independent coffee shops around the world. Musicians cannot
buy their first guitar -or pay for a concert ticket to go see and hear
their sources of inspiration play- with the shareholder returns of

What is really going on when Oxfam "helps" in this way and when The
Guardian writes in this way, is that they create in the public
imagination an acceptance of private, exclusive property rights as a
very good way of helping the poor. It is a subliminal justification of
trademark law, the neo-liberal, private property regime. But it does not
help "the poor" understood as an abstract category of people, it can at
best help some clearly defined, specific poor people by making them
propertied people - which then of course makes the rest of the poor even
more poor. "Everybody knows, the rich get rich, the poor stay poor."

What follows is a long excerpt from "Property relations in the knowledge
economy: in search of anti-capitalist commons"-, which is a draft (of an
academic paper) that deals with philosophical/legal/economic aspects of
common ownership, the by now classic fictitious/constructed "tragedy of
the commons", and Roman law and ownership history. The purpose is to
reverse the way we generally think about ownership and social
organisation - and to show that common ownership is a good thing.

"Elinor Ostrom (1990, 2000) has led extensive empirically based research
work that complements Taylor's theoretical refutation of the
N-Prisoners' Dilemma game at the heart of the influential stories
supporting the neoliberal privatisation agenda, here in the words of
Carol Rose (ibid; p. 106):

“Elinor Ostrom ... and her colleagues point out [that] there is no
reason to think that the only forms of resource governance must come
from individual ownership on the one hand, or from central governmental
management on the other. [N]umerous examples of informal group property
of "common-pool resources" far beyond Europe, from irrigating
communities in the Philippines, to livestock-raising communities in
Japan, to fishing communities in Turkey. Such communities clearly refute
the idea that the commons is necessarily "tragic"; on the contrary, a
number of these limited common property regimes have lasted in Tangible
Space for centuries.”.

Ostrom has in her work unpacked the Tragedy of the Commons by
investigating real-life commons where people sometimes for centuries or
more have successfully constituted their own non-exclusive form of
organisation. Instead of the one-sided idea that human beings are
naturally self-interested and therefore must be coerced to cooperate,
Ostrom points to future areas of research to better understand how
resources can be shared. She confirms that free-riding is a problem, she
admits that some people do indeed seem not to naturally cooperate, but
that, also, many people happily cooperate on a voluntary basis. So,
rather, the real life situation of the commons is that it is a not a
tragedy and the problems that privatisation arguments invoke in this
context are not as significant as they are purported to be: successful
management of natural resources is not doomed to fail due to a lack of
cooperative skills and does not necessarily require external, coercive
authority. Human societies provide empirical evidence that no economic
logic can refute or deny.

However, the collective work to undermine the idea that people can
self-constitute successful governance models is not a done deal, as
Ostrom writes with a careful balance (2000 p. 138):

“While these empirical studies have posed a severe challenge to the zero
contribution theory, these findings have not yet been well integrated
into an accepted, revised theory of collective action. A substantial gap
exists between the theoretical prediction that self-interested
individuals will have extreme difficulty in coordinating collective
action and the reality that such cooperative behaviour is widespread,
although far from inevitable”

Ostrom's forthcoming integration of theoretical and empirical arguments
for and evidence of the success of the commons can be linked to lessons
from cyberspace as well as to practices of and theories around social
movements creating forms of communal social relations, events and
venues, and one may wish that such integrative work would constitute
taking a baby step towards what we can call an anti-capitalist

For further reading see sites such as:

and then switch off the computer and go meet some people :)

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