Yale Conference Invigorates Access To Knowledge MovementPublished on 4 May 2006 @ 6:24 pm
By William New, Intellectual Property Watch
NEW HAVEN, Connecticut (US)–A late April conference at prestigious Yale University Law School gave new focus and momentum to a growing movement aimed at protecting the public’s right to access knowledge.
The effort seeks to slow years of momentum in the direction of ever-stronger and wider-reaching intellectual property rights seen as moving ever-greater amounts of information and knowledge into private hands.
The 21-23 April Access to Knowledge (A2K) Conference organised by the Yale Information Society Project brought together many of the most-recognised thinkers and practitioners across a variety of fields dependent upon access to information and know-how.
The packed panels – there were more than 100 panelists over three days – worked through every imaginable aspect of how having access can improve or save lives and societies. The range showed how the issue has become infused into local indigenous communities, education, science, food and agriculture, health, media, personal privacy, technology and creativity. It tackled legal issues, morals and ethics, economics, the need for better measurement, and numerous development concerns.
Participants came from a vast array of backgrounds. Speakers making claims about another country or region often found themselves quickly confronted with experts from there. In addition, there were at least two officials from the United Nations World Intellectual Property Organization, including top copyright officer Richard Owens. But there were very few industry representatives beyond Doug Johnson of Sun Microsystems.
In some ways, the personal exchanges at breaks and in the margins of the sessions took on as much importance, as veterans from the mid-1990s fights against the World Trade Organization Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), and the two 1996 WIPO Internet treaties came into the sync with the new ultra-digital generation of academics and activists.
The specific outcome of the conference remains a little unclear, but the ideas generated by a steady stream of contemporary thinkers led to furious and inspired discussion in every corner of the wood-panelled and stain-glassed law school setting, and certainly will be carried forward. Vigorous intellectual discussions were even witnessed continuing unabated through the three-hour post-event shuttle ride to the New York airport. And the debate on A2K that already was vibrant at Yale is surely more intense now than ever.
Examples of ideas and projects discussed included:
John Howkins of the IP Charter proposed to hold a conference in 2010, 300 years after the English Parliament passed the first copyright law (1710), in order to take a fresh look at intellectual property law, with regional meetings leading up to the final gathering, with involvement from all stakeholders. He referred to the IP Charter, which urges governments to shift intellectual property laws back toward the public, as a “first try” at this.
The need for developing methods and conducting more measurement of access to knowledge appears to be acute, based on the panel discussing that issue. Ernest Wilson of the University of Maryland said it is useful to tell success stories about how access to knowledge helped people.
Exceptions and limitations to copyright terms also were debated widely. Teresa Hackett of Electronic Information For Libraries (eIFL) joined the call for exceptions and limitations for library users. “Just as our members started to benefit from access to these new resources, they were also being exposed to the international IP environment, finding themselves at an increasing disadvantage, paying more and receiving less, fatally undermining the new services they were offering their users,” she said.
Hackett said exceptions for education has always been part of copyright law, and that the extension of exceptions and limitations or a treaty on access to knowledge “is not therefore a new or radical departure from the past.” In the copyright debate, she said, “we are the traditionalists, not the radicals as we are sometimes portrayed.”
Officials from Chile and Uruguay, speaking in their own capacities, also drew attention to the need for exceptions and limitations for some, such as for private copying or for libraries. Although Chile has advanced proposals for exceptions and limitations at WIPO, the Chilean official said these measures are the last resort for achieving balance. The official raised problems for designing adequate copyright exceptions, including lack of expertise, strong lobbying and the tendency to trade off IP flexibilities for other trade-related gains, such as access to markets.
The Uruguayan official said that country’s national law is missing fundamental exceptions. He suggested a system for remuneration for the reproduction of the works, and said the approach dictated in the 1996 WIPO treaties of relying on technological protection measures has had unintended consequences.
But WIPO’s Owens questioned those who question the existence of digital rights management (DRM), technological means to control access to information. “We think DRM is pretty much here to stay,” he said, adding that the question is more about the implementation of DRM. “I think we’ve moved on.” Owens also said there is increasing work to revise patents standards, and that, “It’s not just about copyright anymore.”
James Love of the Consumer Project on Technology likened the fight for access to knowledge to a “war”, and suggested imagining a world where everyone has the same access. He identified several important ideas, including: challenging prices that harm, challenging poor models for intellectual property rights, such as the existing patent system, and supporting new business models and incentives that do not enclose knowledge.
Pam Samuelson of the University of California, Berkeley said a “maximalist IP agenda” has dominated the A2K debate and called for change.
Ronaldo Lemos of the Fundação Getulio Vargas Law School in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil highlighted statistics that showed the shrinking availability of music, books and film to the public. But he gave examples of divergence from the trend. For instance, techno-brega is a popular type of music in Brazil that is produced and distributed only by street vendors. And Nigeria produces the most films in the world, just ahead of India and more than double what Hollywood makes. But despite 1,200 Nollywood films made last year, Nigeria just opened its first movie theatre, and does not have a copyright law.
The Wide Implications of A2K
A variety of speakers noted the wide impact that limits to access can have on society and human development.
Yale University Law School Professor Jack Balkin said control of knowledge often increases power, and that information and intellectual property provide an increasing share of valuable goods. The goal, therefore, is to provide increasing access, to enhance “distributional justice.”
Joel Mokyr, a Northwestern University (US) economics professor, said “access to knowledge” is a broad term, and narrowed his focus to “useful knowledge.” He further broke that down into knowledge about “what” and knowledge about “how” to do or make something. He highlighted the costs of access, and warned of a possible “great bifurcation” between those who have know-how and those who don’t. He predicted the possible emergence of “access specialists” whose job it is to provide knowledge to others.
Davinia Ovett of 3D (Geneva) discussed the human right to information about basics like food, medicines and scientific knowledge, in addition to the broader right to development to which knowledge contributes. She raised concern about rights holders using a confusing argument that a reference to human rights at the United Nations intended to protect authors and inventors is instead intended to assert that intellectual property rights are a human right.
Some participants discussed other types of interference with access to knowledge, such as privacy and national security. Kate Martin of the Center for National Security Studies discussed how access has been reduced in the name of preventing terrorist attacks.
A Wiki about access to knowledge was created at the event, which includes blogging from the sessions. Access it at: http://research.yale.edu/isp/a2k/wiki/index.php/Main_Page
For an interview with Yochai Benkler, a Yale University Law School professor and an organiser of the event, please see the Inside Views column on www.ip-watch.org.