Impressions from a new consensus

Preparatory meeting for input to WIPO IPR deliberations, Geneva, Friday, February 4, 2005

First impressions are strange beasts.

Wandering into this somewhat run-down, enthusiastically-placarded "Maison des Associations" building in downtown Geneva was a very different experience from wandering into the 60s-stylish, expensively decorated lobby of the World Intellectual Property Organization headquarters in the same city.

And the motley collection of civil rights activists, law professors, representatives of ISPs and IBMs, 3rd world governments, free software movements and less easily classifiable people in the white-painted meeting room didn't seem like a committee with the power to change how the world treats intellectual property - patents, copyrights, industrial secrets and so on. One would imagine such changes being wrought by tie-wearing corporate lawyers and high government officials meeting behind security barriers, admission badges and visitor logs.

But this forum might still prove to be a significant reshaping force in the way we treat IPR.

Context - where did it come from?

Recent years have seen a significant increase in the willingness of industry to wield intellectual property as a tool - and a significant increase in the public perception of their doing so.

The actions of the MPAA and RIAA against the "pirate lawless wild west of Internet filesharing" has been the most written-about aspect of this battle; less ballyhooed but perhaps more significant has been the ownership of genes in GM crops, patents on AIDS medicines available at prices only the rich world can pay, restrictions on the rights of public libraries to lend out copies of works for free, attempts to use patents as a means to hobble the free software movement, the various schemes for preventing recording of TV broadcasts, and so on and so forth.

Where there's action, there's reaction - the 2001 Doha declaration calling upon WTO members to implement patent laws in a manner "to promote access to medicines for all"; the W3C's "royalty free licenses only" policy; the EU and US lawsuits against Microsoft over monopoly tactics, just to mention a few.

This particular group came from a campaign spearheaded by CPTech, IFLA and others  - which led to a surprising success when Argentina and Brazil introduced a motion into WIPO for a "development agenda". As part of the job of preparing for WIPO's meetings in pursuit of this agenda, this group was gathered to share information, ideas and possible ways forward.

So what was this meeting about?

The theme of the gathering could be described as "limiting the harmful effects of assertions of intellectual property" - striking a balance between IP as a tool to protect the right to reap the fruit of genuine innovation and IP as a tool to prevent others from pursuing different opportunities and goals.

People present vere from various bacgrounds - EFF activists, professors of international law, a man from IBM, a woman from BellSouth, representatives from a number of non-first-world governments..... the thing they had in common was having encountered situations where intellectual property had been used as a weapon against themselves, their causes or their companies. In many different ways - ranging over the lawsuits brought against ISPs for "complicity" in filesharing, getting a fair price for AIDS medicines for Africa, worry about the ability of a patent holder to stop legal distribution of open-source software, worry about the chilling effect of the fear of patent issues on research and standardization.

The format was presentations focused around various - and diverse - topics, and discussion around these.

To wit:

I understood that the problems of libraries (which are heavily hit by DRM technologies, which makes it impossible for them to exercise their legally protected excemptions from copyright restrictions) had been discussed the day before I arrived.

The last session was a "what now?" session - it was clear that the rather diverse set of participants would have to organize their efforts quite a bit in order to make progress towards influencing WIPO's future events - the target envisioned was "shifting WIPO from seeing its mission in terms of expanding the power of IPR to a mission that involved finding a fair balance between IPR holders' rights and the rights of others".

Next steps?

Hard to tell. Some specific proposals were put on the table at this meeting; those need refinement and scoping in order to make sense in the whole IPR contex; other proposals are needed to specifically address other known issues, such as alleviating the chilling effect of IPR even when held by "friendly" parties.

And the whole thing needs to be brought to a forum where the people who argue for a more powerful protection of IPR are able to enter into dialogue with those who seek to restrict it. A logical target is the half dozen WIPO events beginning mid April through September 2005 where WIPO will evaluate the proposals for change.

Watch this space.

Background material