Dimension: Relationships between Economic Systems and IP

We advocate that writing studies practitioners address relationships between economic systems and intellectual property (IP) because IP, particularly copyright, privileges the financial interests of certain agents over others. And who gets privileged—whether author, audience, or distributor—is dependent on cultural and historical context. Recent legislative developments in particular have emphasized IP's complex role in economic systems. Writing studies practitioners might rightly point to language in the U.S. Constitution that suggests IP's (particularly copyright's) initial (intended) goal was not economic but rather to promote the advancement of knowledge. As readers/users may know, the Patent and Copyright Clause of the U.S. Constitution indicated that Congress has the power "[t]o promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries" (U.S. Const. art. I,§8,cl.8). In emphasizing "the Progress of Science and useful Arts," this clause suggests that IP's primary purpose is to generate and circulate knowledge through the (eventual) free sharing of authors' and inventors' "writings and discoveries." Still, extensions of copyright terms, we would argue, have served to privilege the financial gain copyright holders might make over the advancement of scientific and artistic work. Although this function of IP was not necessarily codified in the language of the Constitution, it has emerged over time.

Other scholars (e.g., Woodmansee & Jaszi, 1994) have analyzed this constitutional language and lineage, but what we wish to emphasize here that came out of our interviews is that what is at stake in IP is whose financial interests get privileged and how this answer depends upon difficult cultural understandings of author, distributor, and audience. Peter Baldwin made this point in his 2016 book The Copyright Wars: Three Centuries of Trans-Atlantic Battle. In tracing the development of copyright law in the United States and Europe, he described ways in which the Anglo-American and Continental systems differ in terms of whether they privilege the distributor (the Anglo-American system) or the author (the Continental system). What we as writing studies practitioners do well to remember and teach, then, is that our understanding of IP is inevitably mediated by a rhetorical situation (i.e., relationships between author, distributor, and audience) with financial gain as its exigence. There is more than one economic system to consider—both given the increasingly networked global economy and given the multiple non-dominant approaches that exist within prevailing economic systems. For instance, study participants pointed out that Native American and Latin American cultures do not embrace the same approaches to IP as the dominant U.S. (Anglo-American) system in which they live.

Video pedagogical takeaways

The practitioners whose voices we share in the Relationships between Economic Systems and IP video suggest a number of options for having IP conversations about economic systems with students and colleagues. Based on these interview responses, our larger study, our review of the literature, and our experiences on the IP Caucus, we extrapolate the following pedagogical takeaways.

For teaching undergraduates, these options include:

  • Share explicitly with students that the notion of IP is based in Western capitalistic ideals, that they are always already driven by economic concerns.
  • Discuss with students that some groups benefit financially from IP laws and practices but that not all cultural groups embrace the values bound up in prevailing approaches to IP.
  • Note that authors, including post-secondary educators, subsist, in whole or in part, by being paid for their IP. Share examples of financial gain or loss based on IP decisions (such as the Superman comics example).

For teaching graduate students and colleagues, these options include:

  • Discuss the policies surrounding teaching online courses, including who owns materials produced and distributed online.
  • Identify together which groups and stakeholders IP policies privilege and support and who they disadvantage and marginalize.
  • Discuss the economics of using and creating open-access textbooks, including what is potentially gained (e.g., free access, easier distribution) and lost (e.g., quality, ongoing infrastructural support) in using such materials.

These options help writing students and faculty at all levels consider the financial motivations for and consequences of IP policies and decisions.


Below are resources that we suggest as ways of facilitating conversations with students and colleagues about economic systems and their relationships with IP:

  • 1. Baldwin, Peter. (2016). The copyright wars: Three centuries of trans-Atlantic battle, Reprint ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • 2. Bazerman, Charles, Blakesley, David, Palmquist, Michael, & Russell, David. (2008). Open access book publishing in writing studies: A case study." First Monday, 13(1). Retrieved from
  • 3. Copyright Clearance Center. (2017). Retrieved from
  • 4. Lessig, Lawrence. (2008). Remix: Making art and commerce thrive in the hybrid economy. New York: Penguin Press.
  • 5. Rooksby, Jacob H. (2016). The branding of the American mind: How universities capture, manage, and monetize intellectual property and why it matters. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.