27 January 2010

Recalibrating Intellectual Monopolies

For the last half-century or so, there has been an implicit acceptance that the more intellectual monopolies we have, the better (even if it's not framed in those terms, but of the cuddlier "intellectual property" lie.) Many of us are rebelling against that framing, and at last there seems to be some shift in perceptions. Here are two recent signs of hope.

First, we have a submission from Brazil to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) on the subject of of exceptions and limitations to patent rights, which contains the following remarkable passage:

The naïve assumption that providing IP title holders with stronger rights will, by itself, foster innovation or attract investments is no longer acceptable. The open and global economy has rejected this assumption and severely hit the very essence of the patent system, whereby a country would confer an artificial and temporary “monopoly” for the inventor in exchange of having the invention revealed allegedly benefiting the society. No such thing is currently taking place, with a few countries excepted. What, then, does a Member State get out of being part of WIPO? If contributing to the welfare of the society does not constitute a major aspect of what a country could get out of being part of a member-driven UN Organization such as WIPO, what could it possibly be?

Good question there, Brazil.

Meanwhile, in the world of copyright, we have The Public Domain Manifesto. This is a long and rich document that is worth reading in its entirety. Here's a taster:

The public domain, as we understand it, is the wealth of information that is free from the barriers to access or reuse usually associated with copyright protection, either because it is free from any copyright protection or because the right holders have decided to remove these barriers. It is the basis of our self-understanding as expressed by our shared knowledge and culture. It is the raw material from which new knowledge is derived and new cultural works are created. The Public Domain acts as a protective mechanism that ensures that this raw material is available at its cost of reproduction - close to zero - and that all members of society can build upon it. Having a healthy and thriving Public Domain is essential to the social and economic well-being of our societies. The Public Domain plays a capital role in the fields of education, science, cultural heritage and public sector information. A healthy and thriving Public Domain is one of the prerequisites for ensuring that the principles of Article 27 (1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ('Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.') can be enjoyed by everyone around the world.

At the heart of the manifesto are the following simple, and yet sadly radical ideas:

1. The Public Domain is the rule, copyright protection is the exception. Since copyright protection is granted only with respect to original forms of expression, the vast majority of data, information and ideas produced worldwide at any given time belongs to the Public Domain. In addition to information that is not eligible for protection, the Public Domain is enlarged every year by works whose term of protection expires. The combined application of the requirements for protection and the limited duration of the copyright protection contribute to the wealth of the Public Domain so as to ensure access to our shared culture and knowledge.

2. Copyright protection should last only as long as necessary to achieve a reasonable compromise between protecting and rewarding the author for his intellectual labour and safeguarding the public interest in the dissemination of culture and knowledge. From neither the perspective of the author nor the general public do any valid arguments exist (whether historical, economic, social or otherwise) in support of an exceedingly long term of copyright protection. While the author should be able to reap the fruits of his intellectual labour, the general public should not be deprived for an overly long period of time of the benefits of freely using those works.

3. What is in the Public Domain must remain in the Public Domain. Exclusive control over Public Domain works must not be reestablished by claiming exclusive rights in technical reproductions of the works, or using technical protection measures to limit access to technical reproductions of such works.

4. The lawful user of a digital copy of a Public Domain work should be free to (re-)use, copy and modify such work. The Public Domain status of a work does not necessarily mean that it must be made accessible to the public. The owners of physical works that are in the Public Domain are free to restrict access to such works. However once access to a work has been granted then there ought not be legal restrictions on the re-use, modification or reproduction of these works.

5. Contracts or technical protection measures that restrict access to and re-use of Public Domain works must not be enforced. The Public Domain status of a work guarantees the right to re-use, modify and reproduce. This also includes user prerogatives arising from exceptions and limitations, fair use and fair dealing, ensuring that these cannot be limited by contractual or technological means.

"The Public Domain is the rule, copyright protection is the exception": sounds like a good encapsulation to me - let's start spreading it.

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