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Intellectual Property Right and Free Trade: First Question to Ethan Zuckerman

July 9, 2012

Interview with Ethan Zuckerman, Director of the Center for Civic Media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Co-Founder of Global Voices during Global Voices Summit 2012 in Kenya.

1. Question: Some of the main arguments to justify Intellectual Property Right (IPR) are that IPR would increase innovation and creativity since Research and Development (R e D) industry sector would be willing to invest money on research and that creators are entitled to receive the rewards of their creation. Do you agree? How would you analyse that enforcement of IPR brings about ‘restriction’, or instead, ‘access’ of knowledge worldwide?

EZ: I think what is so tricky about the situation like some of the current Intellectual Property law like TRIPS, it is that many of the early intentions of Intellectual Property law were legitimate and in some cases noble and what’s happened it is that the situation has extended badly out of control through what you may think it is corporation capture. So, probably the simplest way to think about this is Copyright in the United States. When Copyright began in the United States it was a 7 years term, it was designed to allow an author to produce a work and to make some money out of it, and to have an incentive to create, but it wasn’t a permanent monopoly, it was clearly designated as a temporary distinction and the fact that Copyright ended was very very important because it then created works that had fallen out of Copyright and that it goes for General Knowledge on an unlicensed basis. What’s happened is that now in the US is the life of the creator plus 70 years and it is believed that it got to be extended again once Mickey Mouse is once in doubt of coming out of Copyright so this is the running joke is that Copyright now seems to be based on what Disney needs. And, I think TRIPS is a very good example of again what sort happens when things get out of control. So, there are legitimate arguments that if a company engages in a great deal of research and produces a new drug you want them to have the ability to recover their costs from it. And it is quite possible that that are some certain types of researches like pharmaceutical research that are very very difficult to do original research if you don’t end up with a limited monopoly on the drug.

EZ:The flip side is that there are desires to enforce those protections or the corporation desire to enforce those protections has got so out of control that you end up with those very asymmetric trade agreements. They don’t have very much space for exemptions, they don’t have very much space for provisions for the developing world. I think we can both believe that it is OK for the GlaxoSmithKline to be able to make money back on researching a drug, which I do, and also believe that GlaxoSmithKline should also have some obligations to something like a compulsory license to make a life saving medication available in the developing world. So, I am not as anti-Intellectual Property as some of my colleagues are. I am sort of anti the absurd extremes to which it goes, I think what it is so hard about the issue is that it is sort of fun to the stand up and say no Intellectual Property, knowledge should be free, give to the people, and I think unfortunately there are some tough consequences from it. Yes, there are some people making money with Creative Commons content, but it is hard to find say pharmaceutical companies that are doing novel drug discovery without a lot of intellectual property protection.

EZ: We have just had this experience in the media lab. Our new Director of the Media Lab is a guy named Joi Ito, and he is former Director of Creative Commons, about as liberal as you can get on these issues. He came in and said look I really would love the media lab to be as open as possible. The people at the media lab who make software said yes, we agree with you. Software patents, you know, Copyright is meaningless on software, It is impossible to enforce patents, you know, just punishes the wrong people, we will be totally open on software But our biologists and our material scientists who are much less supportive, because they said look if we are going to do drug discovery, that’s a 15 years commitment, and companies won’t do it unless they have a certain amount of protection. And so, it’s ended up in what I think, he thought was not going to be a battle, has turned up to be a very big battle. There are spaces like cultural goods, where I think it is very easy to be a supporter of Creative Commons. There are places like pharma where I think it can get much much harder. When you dealing with something massive like TRIPS, what is so hard about it, it is dealing with a such wide range of intellectual property, we’d really love to sort of pull it apart and deal with it separately, instead what you have to deal with it this really sort of exploited piece of legislation that is really being sort of shoved on people, in many cases, without much consideration.

Thiana Biondo: Do you think limitation of time would be a suggestion….or a solution?

EZ: I think limitations of time are very powerful. And I think that in all most of cases the idea that someone has a permanent monopoly is a terrible idea. All of the things you like about creating and protecting intellectual property, incentivize creation, you know, protecting the creator’s right. If those extend beyond the creator’s death, that is a little silly, a little crazy, and that’s where Copyright has gone so badly. I guess the question is sort of becomes what is a reasonable period of time. People in the US have suggested copyright around founder’s copyright which is 14 years, what seems very reasonable, 7 years and 7 years extension, what is in the Constitution. 14 years might be brief for the Pharma industry, but it might also be interesting to see whether they can work within it. I think some combination of time restriction, compulsory license and exception. This might be developing world or least developed world exceptions, this might be blind and disable exceptions on copyrighted material. I think if we’re going to extend these monopolies, they have to be temporary and they have to be some loopholes.

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