Ron Layton: Intellectual Property Rights for Global Producers

Ashoka Fellow
United States, North America
Fellow Since 2004
My work: Using intellectual property to help producers deal with economic problems that threaten their livelihood.

Citation

This profile was prepared when Ron Layton was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2004.
The New Idea
Ron is using intellectual property as an economic strategy to empower the world’s poor. What Ron sees, and many others do not yet, is that intellectual property is not just a legal technicality by which big businesses fight over copyright infringement, or exploit the indigenous assets of the poor. It is a powerful business model that helps producers deal with the fundamental economic problems that threaten their livelihood.

For example, today farmers in Ethiopia sell their high-quality, specialty coffee to a long chain of middlemen to get to the final consumer. Although there are strong consumer markets for their specialty coffees, named after the regions of origin, the farmers earn a smaller proportion of the coffee price than ever. Ron wants to help the farmers secure ownership of the “brand,” that marks their coffee as distinctive to consumers. The identification of the product with the place is their asset, as much as the brand name Coca-Cola is an asset. Ownership opens up a range of commercial options to the farmers: they can progressively reduce the number of middlemen and increase their share of coffee income; they can increase homeland processing by improving the return on investment at higher prices; they can control exclusive rights to supply their product to distributors. They can also ensure that their hard work in maintaining coffee quality over many years is reflected in greater income security. In short, they can benefit from the more sophisticated processes of the global economy.

Ron’s vision has enormous implications. It offers entire countries, especially the poorest countries reliant on commodity export income, the opportunity to reduce the risk of the social and economic disruption that occurs when factories move abroad or markets collapse. It can stimulate investment in citizens’ innate creativity, in education and small business, and propel economic policy that promotes creative designs rather than manufacturing.

To achieve this sea change requires the birth of a new field. By aligning producers’ organizations, intellectual property experts and policymakers nationally and internationally, Ron is shaping this new field and relating it to existing people, professions, and institutions.
The Problem
The Strategy
The Person

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