Who owns the world?

Everything - from land, water and plant seeds to folk stories and football results - can now be clai

You can buy a one-acre plot of land on the moon for £19.95. Slightly cheaper is Venus, which can be had for £14.25, plus registration fee. You can do this because, on 22 November 1980, Dennis M Hope went into the offices of San Francisco County and filed a declaration of ownership for both bodies. Just to be sure, he also filed with the federal government, the USSR and the UN General Assembly. He also declared ownership of the eight remaining planets and their moons. He set up a Lunar embassy and started to license others to sell plots. One, MoonEstates.com, describes itself as the UK's "only extraterrestrial land agents". For Mars, there is even a bill of rights to provide for mediation in the event of land disputes between settlers and a "native creature".

They can't be serious, can they? In 1967, the internationally agreed Outer Space Treaty forbade governments from claiming any celestial bodies as their property. But the committee that worded the treaty forgot to include private firms or individuals and, though the 1979 Moon Treaty would have prevented the exploitation of space for private profit, not enough countries signed. Opponents complained that it would bog down space exploration in "a 'common heritage of all mankind' morass".

This attempt to expand private property to outer space continues something that has been happening for hundreds of years: a move towards a single, restrictive approach to ownership and control. Western-style property rights are tightening on the global economy like a Chinese finger trap. The land grab of our nearest celestial bodies has become a mirror of the commercial occupation of our inner universe, from genes to the chemistry of essential medicines. Things that were once owned and managed in diverse ways - land, plants, water, ideas, genes - have increasingly been subjected to a single model: the right of private ownership. A private property right is, by another name, a right to exclude. That is the issue which dominates the ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation now taking place in Cancun, Mexico; the people of poor countries feel they are being excluded, often from resources in their own countries. Unless we can rediscover the lost diversity of property regimes, we shall not solve the problems of our age such as climate change, hunger and disease.

Modern westerners tend to think there are only two kinds of property: public and private. But the property regimes of the past were far more varied and subtle. In Leviticus, the God of Israel instructs: "The land shall not be sold for ever: for the land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me." Any land sold by the early Jews reverted to the original owner after 49 years to prevent inequalities developing between families. To this day, the state in Israel leases most land on a long-term basis. Similar systems apply in Singapore, Hong Kong and Canberra, Australia.

Copyrights and patents were first introduced in Britain in the 18th century. It was thought - and still is - that they would provide an incentive for innovation and that individuals would be encouraged to share their ideas without fear of being copied. Yet China, which had been printing books since the seventh century, had long been a technological innovator without ever instituting formal intellectual property rights.

Conflicts over land ownership today in such countries as Brazil and Mexico echo the battles that rural people fought in 17th-century Europe and 19th-century India. In The Great Transformation, Karl Polanyi wrote: "To isolate [land] and form a market out of it was perhaps the weirdest of all undertakings of our ancestors." When the British empire changed indigenous systems of land ownership in India, with huge shifts towards the production of cash crops such as cotton, indigo and opium for export, the consequences were devastating. When there had been hardship before, the nature of the rural economy and its social relations largely prevented major famines. But in 120 years of British rule, India suffered 31 serious famines, against the 17 recorded in the previous 2,000 years. Mike Davis explains in Late Victorian Holocausts how "local economies were violently incorporated into the world market". Incorporation meant dividing public from private land. "Common lands - or 'waste' in the symptomatic vocabulary of the Raj," writes Davis, "were either transformed into taxable private property or state monopolies. Free goods . . . became either commodities or contraband." Water also became a private good linked to land ownership in a way alien to India. No land meant no water.

In England, from the 14th century onwards, common land - once available to anyone who wanted to graze their livestock - was fenced off by landowners with the help of around 4,000 parliamentary enclosure acts. Today, the enclosure of land continues in many poorer countries where mining or logging rights are sold, often below market prices, for private development. Since the Second World War, advanced economies have incorporated patents on plants and their seeds into property regimes to safeguard the investments of commercial crop breeders. In effect, they have enclosed living things. The idea is abhorrent to African farmers. Dr Tewolde Gebre-Egziabher of Ethiopia's Environmental Protection Authority says that charging money for seeds - as opposed to exchanging them - is unknown in most of rural Africa. "Patents are for inventions derived by intellectual activity of the human mind," he argues. "No living thing or part of a living thing, even a gene, has ever been invented, only discovered."

But enclosure extends to less tangible assets: our civic institutions, broadcast airwaves, public spaces and services, government research and development programmes and databases, schools and hospitals are all under siege from private interests.

Thomas Jefferson envisioned the free circulation of ideas. "He who lights his taper at mine," he wrote, "receives light without darkening me." But knowledge that should be free and shared is being fenced off into private preserves.

Intellectual property is a good example of how a single model does not work. Set at 20 years for all inventions, patent duration does not differentiate between the incentives needed to invest in different kinds of technologies and hence the value of the monopoly in comparison with the work involved. Corporations constantly create new intellectual property rights such as the sui generis right that protects the construction of databases from existing information (hardly an invention). Increasingly, they also question statutory exceptions, calling into question the basis of public libraries, for example.

The result is that culture is being commercialised in an unprecedented way. The International Olympic Committee has claimed property rights in the reporting of sporting events, tables of results, and so on. Stock quotes, football results and other compilations of facts could soon be taken inside property regulations. Disney is privatising folk stories such as Snow White. Intellectual property rights have not only become crucial to building the capital values of companies, in order to boost revenue through licensing, but are also being used to colonise embryonic areas of technology through "strategic patenting". Companies no longer have to make - or even be able to make - a product they want to patent, so long as they can describe it plausibly. Some companies, such as Walker Digital, produce nothing but patents.

But it is the consequences of the export of western property regimes in drugs, plants, land and water that are most serious. Applying restrictive patent rules to vital drugs kills 37,000 people every day, according to Oxfam. Allowing a US firm to patent the qualities of Basmati rice threatens the livelihoods of Indian farmers and amounts to the theft of hundreds of years of accumulated plant-breeding knowledge.

Access to water is no longer regarded as a human right; water is more and more treated as a commodity and its supply compared to the brewing industry to explain why it is appropriate for commercialisation. In Bolivia, the water supply system of Cochabamba was sold off to a group of foreign and national companies. Within weeks, water prices had more than doubled. Many families, facing bills of more than 20 per cent of their monthly income, were told to pay up or be cut off. Haiti, Ghana and Manila in the Philippines have had similar experiences.

In a new report, the New Economics Foundation proposes a move towards a more plural approach to ownership, where different forms are designed to address different problems. The absence of any ownership regime can be as damaging as the adoption of the wrong one. For example, global warming will not be stopped until there is an agreement for the management of the global commons of the atmosphere. To cap and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we need an equitable property rights regime, so that everyone is entitled to a fair share of a global carbon cake that is limited by the atmosphere's capacity to soak it up.

Countless other proposals swim against the tide of restrictive market-based "rights of exclusion". Indian groups working with peasant farmers have established community grain funds. Community land trusts in the US, Canada and the UK are trying to take land off the market and place it into trusteeship, maintaining affordability because there is no capacity for speculation or profiteering. In Brazil, the Landless Workers Movement has been moving rural people on to unused land since 1985, using a constitutional law which decrees that land must fulfil a "social function". More than 300,000 families have won land titles to more than 20 million acres.

In its long history, property has never been proved either right or wrong, natural or artificial, corrupting or stabilising. Nobody has shown that it is the only way of providing incentives to development or that it is the principal cause of social inequalities. But we cannot allow an exclusive property rights regime to continue governing everything from ideas to land. When the only tool you have is a hammer, all problems look like nails. But our problems are more varied, and to deal with them we need a bigger toolbox.

Andrew Simms is policy director of the New Economics Foundation and co-author of Limits to Property: the failure of restrictive property regimes in the modern world, newly published by nef (www.neweconomics.org or 020 7820 6300)