Faculty of Arts


Anthropology and Intellectual Property


Intellectual property, biological property and cultural property refer to a set of complex issues of considerable contemporary significance. Current international debates about the sequencing of human genes, the development of the internet, the preservation of cultural heritage, the protection of biodiversity and the development and patenting of new crops and new drugs all involve, in one way or another, questions of intellectual property. They are linked by legal questions concerning the ownership of intangibles, an area of law that emerged - and continues to grow - in the context of the expansion of capitalist economies and accelerating technological innovation.

Anthropologists have added to discussions of intellectual property by questioning the cross-cultural applicability of Euro-American concepts of property, which are based on culturally and historically specific conceptualisations of social persons, objects and the relationships between persons and objects. They have also questioned ideas about creativity, which are central to legal definitions of intellectual property and have documented the effects of increasingly globalised intellectual property regimes (such as the Paris and Berne Conventions and the more recent World Trade Organization Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property) on local, and often disempowered, communities. 

This course will consider anthropological work on property in general and will deal with aspects of intellectual property such as culturally-specific concepts of ownership, ideas of the commons and the public domain, the objectification and appropriation of indigenous knowledge (by anthropologists and others), creativity, the protection of intangible cultural heritage and effects of the internet and global flows of information on persons, privacy and the ownership of ideas. The course will end with a consideration of arguments against intellectual property.

Learning Outcomes

At the completion of this course, students are expected to:

  • Understand anthropological approaches to property in general and to intellectual property in particular
  • Understand how personhood is relevant to conceptualisations of property and intellectual property
  • Understand how anthropological theorising about relationships between persons and things is relevant to contemporary debates concerning intellectual property
  • Understand why intellectual property has become a particularly salient discourse in the last 30 years
  • Understand how intellectual property claims are being used for cultural and political purposes
  • Demonstrate reading, writing, presentation and discussion skills at an appropriate level

View the course syllabus

Availability 2021

Semester 2


Coordinator(s) Dr Mark Busse


ANTHRO 756: 15.0 points

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