Wednesday, March 29, 2006

TACD debate on the politics and ideology of intellectual property

I wrote this review for EDRI-gram on the excellent TACD conference on the Ideology and Politics of Intellectual Property:


Jamie LoveCivil society groups from around the world met in Brussels 20/21 March to discuss the politics and ideology of intellectual property. Speakers included representatives from WIPO and the EU, former US Patent Commissioner Bruce Lehman, consumer and development campaigners and noted IP academics Peter Drahos and Susan Sell.

The conference tried to step back from immediate IP controversies and take a look at the rhetoric and politicking behind the framing of IP debates and legislation. Jamie Love set the tone for the meeting by looking at the loaded terms used by proponents and critics of stronger IP rights, contrasting positive language such as "innovation", "value" and "wealth creation" with negative descriptions such as "monopoly", "privilege" and "exploitation".

The practical politics of the recent software patent debate were laid out by pro-patent lobbyist Jonathan Zuck, anti-software patents campaigner Florian Muller and European Parliament member and patent attorney Sharon Bowles. Bowles complained that few involved in the debate understood even the definitions involved; many in the audience doubtless felt the same way! Bruce Lehman and Rufus Pollock described the pro-IP consensus that exists across mainstream US and EU political parties, which gave Green MEP David Hammerstein a chance to describe his party's lone stance that instead favours innovation and consumer rights.

The most notable comment of the conference came from Bruce Lehman. While head of intellectual property policy for President Clinton, he drove the creation of the Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), which embedded IP into global trade treaties. But Lehman now feels that TRIPS has been a "huge failure" for the US, providing US market access to developing countries that have not reciprocated with strong IP enforcement.

Europeans can only hope that those in the Commission and member state governments responsible for IP policy are listening to this gale of criticism of ever-stronger private property rights in ideas. Leonardo Cervera Navas of DG Internal Market said at the meeting that shorter copyright terms were politically unthinkable. The debate will only move forward once such blinkers are removed and we see evidence- rather than faith-based IP policy development.

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