who’s wto

February 7th, 2011 by Romeo Anghelache

What happened in the nineteen century to tangible properties is happening now to intangibles. Take as a first example a recent change in Saudi Arabian law brought about by the World Trade Organization. As the historian Carla Hesse has noted, in traditional Islamic practice, authors did not own the ideas expressed in their books:

“A thief who stole a book was thus not subject to the punishment for theft – the amputation of his hand. Islamic law held that he had not intended to steal the book as paper and ink, but the ideas in the book – and unlike the paper and ink, these ideas were not tangible property.”

Thus when Saudi Arabia wished to join the WTO, its religious judges objected to the notion that bootlegged videos and software could be classified as stolen goods. The WTO flew a group of them to Geneva and persuaded them to change their minds.

from the book Common as air - revolution, art, and ownership (2010) by Lewis Hyde.

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