The University of Newcastle, Australia

Safeguarding human rights and cultural knowledge

Internationally respected researcher, Professor Christoph Antons passionately advocates for the rights of individuals and communities worldwide, helping locals speak into development policies and laws that affect countless lives and livelihoods.

Christoph Antons

Professor Christoph Antons’ work lies at the intersection of intellectual property (IP), human rights, environmental law and development policies in Asia.

Internationally esteemed for his research, cultural and legal expertise, Christoph partners with universities, research centres and NGOs to protect people’s rights, develop practical and lawful solutions to environmental challenges, and safeguard cultural knowledge.

“My work examines discourses about forms of knowledge and their status in the legal system.”

“In particular, the dichotomy between knowledge regarded as scientific (and suitable for intellectual property protection) and ‘practical’, ‘local’ or ‘traditional’ knowledge (which is often regarded as being in the public domain).”

Christoph is currently leading two critical Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery projects with cross-cultural impact. The first examines food security and the governance of local knowledge among farmers in India and Indonesia. The second explores the development of Indonesian IP policies over the past 40 years as an example for similar processes in other middle-income developing countries. A third ARC Discovery project, concluded in June 2019, brought together discourses in international organisations about intangible cultural heritage, policy implementation and what consists a “right” when it comes to cultural and intellectual property across national and community borders.

“Those involved in these projects—farmers, members of indigenous communities, consumers, IP users and those working in IP industries—greatly appreciate the opportunity to explain their practices, voice their concerns with regards to policies that affect them and to provide input for policy recommendations.”

Central to each of Christoph’s initiatives is a respect for intangible cultural heritage. His bottom-up (as opposed to top-down) approach to policy development allows local voices to be heard, and produces collaborative, contextual solutions.

“It is important to understand that the usefulness of knowledge is context dependent. One system is not necessarily superior to another and a good balance must be established.”

“I would like to show that different societies have different epistemologies of knowledge and different priorities in providing incentives for the sharing or developing of knowledge.”

Policies for the people

Christoph’s research is helping to inform policies and regulations that are culturally appropriate, respectful and informed.

“One of the biggest problems with regards to policy solutions developed in, or recommended to, developing countries is standardisation—'one size fits all’ solutions that are based on a few successful examples elsewhere.”

“I try to show in my work that local context matters. It cannot be neglected.”

“This is perhaps most obvious in agriculture, where introduced plants and technologies must be adjusted to local soil and weather conditions. But it’s also evident in other fields where policy recommendations are often made without a thorough understanding of local institutions and circumstances.”

As project lead for the interdisciplinary ARC Discovery project on ‘Food security and the governance of local knowledge in India and Indonesia’, Christoph works shoulder-to-shoulder with lawyers, agricultural scientists, anthropologists and rural development experts to examine local farming practices and knowledge, and to find out just how helpful—or harmful—regulatory processes are for those toiling the soil.

“We are looking at the way small holder farmers identify, conserve and exchange useful plant material and incorporate it into cultivated crops through plant selection and breeding—in particular under conditions of climate change—and identify the ways regulatory structures help or hinder this process.”

Christoph’s work also relates to Australia, where he has been involved in the past in projects related to ‘traditional’ knowledge and cultural expressions. During his appointment with Charles Darwin University in the Northern Territory, Christoph helped establish the Cooperative Research Centre for Desert Knowledge in Alice Springs. More recently, Christoph and his co-researchers are investigating ways of translating learnings from the ARC-funded food security project in Indonesia and India into new solutions for Australian farmers.

Culturally sensitive regulations

Christoph’s recently concluded ARC Discovery grant project, ‘Intangible cultural heritage across borders: laws, structures and strategies in China and its ASEAN neighbours’ ignited valuable cross-cultural discussions about intangible cultural heritage and intellectual property. The project has brought together usually separate discourses in various international organisations, such as UNESCO and the World Intellectual Property Organization.

“Different terminologies and divergent interpretations of relevant ‘rights’ under international conventions have paved the way to serious cross-border conflicts about cultural and intellectual property claimed by neighbouring countries and/or local communities in the context of tourism or development projects.”

“Research resulting from this project analyses the legal, institutional, political and cultural reasons for such conflicts and develops practical proposals for promoting international reconciliation and enhanced international cooperation in heritage protection.” Although funding for this project ceased in June 2019, the research continues in new collaborations, as in Christoph’s participation in the Enredados Network, convened at Coventry University in the UK and concerned with the relationship between IP and intangible cultural heritage.

To facilitate better understanding of intellectual property development processes in the future, Christoph’s third ARC Discovery grant project, ‘Building an intellectual property system: The Indonesian experience’, examines the introduction and operation of IP in Indonesia over the last 40 years. Indonesia’s experience, he explains, can then be examined as a “typical example for middle income developing countries and newcomers to the IP system”, providing governments, businesses and aid agencies with a basis from which to develop investment, training and support strategies.

Transmitting knowledge worldwide

Across all his projects, Christoph is committed to supporting the global exchange of knowledge.

Christoph provides support for innovative academic projects worldwide and is a frequent guest speaker at international conferences aimed at forging the future of intellectual property law, environmental law, human rights and development. He participated in a UNESCO Expert Meeting on Developing an Overall Results Framework for the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage and was a contributing expert to the report on ‘The implications of patent policy for the human right to science and culture’ by the UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, Dr Farida Shaheed, and to the ‘Declaration on Patent Protection: Regulatory Sovereignty under TRIPS’ of the Max Planck Institute for Innovation and Competition. A prolific academic writer, Christoph has also penned more than 100 works, including books, journal articles and contributions to edited volumes over his 30-year academic career. Both his early and more recent publications remain respected knowledge sources within academic circles and more broadly.

One of Christoph’s books, ‘Law and Development in East and Southeast Asia’, published in 2003 and resulting from an earlier ARC-funded project in the mid-1990s, focused on the special characteristics of the Asian development model and its impact on commercial law. Now available in over 500 libraries around the world, the book or chapters from it have been used in courses on democratisation and law and development at some of the most prestigious universities worldwide, including Harvard University, Humboldt University and New York University Law School.

At the University of Newcastle, HDR students have the opportunity to benefit from Christoph’s expertise and love of research firsthand.

“Research is a continuous learning experience. One question leads to the next and one’s understanding grows in the process—and I am doing my best to share my new insights with others through my writings and presentations.”