Access To Knowledge Conference Begins Addressing New Challenges With New Ideas 09/09/2008 by Kaitlin Mara for Intellectual Property Watch 1 Comment Share this:Click to share on Twitter (Opens in new window)Click to share on LinkedIn (Opens in new window)Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)Click to email this to a friend (Opens in new window)Click to print (Opens in new window)By Kaitlin Mara A key conference on access to knowledge opened Monday, with veterans of the A2K movement mixed with many new faces and all participants hoping to find new ideas over the next few days, as they seek to clarify the best paths forward. “The great insight of this movement,” said Yale Law School Information Society Project Director Jack Balkin during the welcome address, “was bringing together a wide range of people who didn’t even imagine that they were working on similar goals, dispersed as they were in their focus on health, science, movies, music, culture, telecommunications policy, innovation, fair competition, freedom of the press and transparency in governance.” The access to knowledge (A2K) movement, which emerged in the early 2000s, “helped us to see we were all after the same things,” said Balkin, but “precisely because of this success, [the movement] is at a crossroads.” Maximiliano Santa Cruz of the Chilean mission in Geneva noted that the intellectual property scene in Geneva four years ago was very different. Changes since then include a public health amendment to the World Trade Organization Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects on Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), agreement on a World Intellectual Property Organization Development Agenda, and the recent adoption of the World Health Organization Global Strategy on Public Health, Innovation, and Intellectual Property, all of which he said were informed by the A2K movement. But how the initiative will remain relevant in the future is the question begun to be answered yesterday. The third conference, organised by the Yale Internet Society Project, Geneva think tank IQsensato and others, is taking place in Geneva from 8 to 10 September. Yale hosted its first A2K conference in 2006. New Voices; New Directions Some highlights of discussion throughout the day included future funding of A2K activities, the expansion of the A2K effort into new agreements, rules and regulations (such as international standards), concrete efforts to build capacity in developing countries, and new ideas on how to exploit linkages between intellectual property rights and international trade that had previously been thought barriers to access to knowledge. Financing will be a key upcoming issue, noted Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa. “These initiatives haven’t happened by accident,” he said, noting that foundation funding had played “a crucial role in allowing the voices to come together.” Teresa Hackett of Electronic Information for Libraries (eIFL.net) echoed this concern, saying civil society groups are less well-funded than private interests and lobby groups, so creative solutions must be found with funders to allow continuing participation. Others mentioned new angles the access movement might need to examine as it makes its way into the future. Tim Hubbard, a leading scientist with the Human Genome Project, noted that a rising question for A2K advocates in the future was going to be balancing the drive for access to information with the need for privacy. With human genomes, even summaries of the data needed for statistical analysis are detailed enough to identify the individual who donated genetic material. It will be necessary either to accept that this kind of data will be public, or to find a way for data to be filtered through a trusted third party to prevent the misappropriation of private information. Margaret Chon of Seattle University Law School presented her recent research on standard setting and certification as “increasingly the way we regulate things globally.” For every access issue, she noted, there is a corresponding standard: for innovation systems, there are open source standards; for climate change, clean development mechanisms regulating emissions standards; for public health, food safety standards. These standards are often made and managed by non-governmental organisations, notably the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), but also several focussed non-profit bodies managing, for instance, “fair trade” certifications. On the one hand this management style allows space for grassroots leadership and new entrepreneurs, Chon said, but on the other hand it is unclear who holds standards bodies accountable, and the sheer number of bodies and standards can obfuscate what any one in particular means. Gabrielle Marceau of the WTO secretariat noted that standards are a good way to bring ideas from outside the WTO system into its law. If a member state puts up a trade restriction, but does so in order to comply with an international standard, it is considered to be acceptable at the WTO, she explained. But Chon said it is important that standards be used to encourage not just access to knowledge but access to justice. Also generating interest was a statement by Catherine Bennett of the National Foreign Trade Council, the first member of a private sector association to speak at an access to knowledge conference. Her organisation’s stakeholder support for intellectual property is borne out of a desire for the kinds of infrastructure, transparency and enforcement they need to feel comfortable with foreign direct investment. “The private sector is weary,” she said, “of the confrontational nature of intellectual property.” She added that her organisation was “interested in a dialogue” but that putting too many demands on the private sector “will drive the golden goose away,” reducing the foreign direct investment (FDI) developing countries need. Several audience members raised concerns that FDI has been shown not to encourage technology transfer in the least developed countries. Sisule Musungu of IQsensato noted that access to knowledge needed to focus not only on intangible assets such as intellectual property rights and technical barriers to trade, but also on physical goods. “If we are just concerned about software,” he said, “how do we ensure that the one-laptop per child computers move to where they are supposed to be?” Richard Owens of WIPO said whether details of technical assistance provided by the UN agency are made accessible is traditionally up to the national government who requested it, but he expected this would be reviewed by the incoming WIPO director general. Marisella Ouma of the African Copyright and Access to Knowledge Network presented an innovative project in Africa to deal with these necessary capacity building issues. Her group is examining the way that copyright law can be amended to facilitate access to educational material, noting that “what happens in practice influences A2K” as much as what’s on the books, and further noting that while wireless telephony has revolutionised the A2K movement it is important to consider how many people actually have access. She noted that her lack of broadband internet at home presents a real barrier to accessing information online, due to long download times. Other innovative ideas were presented by Thiru Balasubramaniam of Knowledge Ecology International – who presented a KEI proposal for a WTO agreement on the supply of knowledge as a public good, which would use “voluntary but binding commitments to enhance the supply of a heterogeneous” set of global public goods – and by Molly Beutz of New York Law School and Christian Courtis of the International Commission on Jurists, who discussed the application of the UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights to access issues. Andrew Rens of the Shuttleworth Foundation had reservations on this use of human rights discourse, asking if it were simply a needless rhetorical change, when the language of development, and in particular economic development, is already strong enough to incentivise action on A2K. Over the next two days, attendees to the conference will be discussing in detail different specific applications of access to knowledge to varying areas of intellectual property, including possible alternative models of business organisation. The hundreds of participants from around the world include government and intergovernmental officials, academics, lawyers, human rights and health activists and a wide range of non-governmental organisations, entrepreneurs and corporate representatives, think tanks, librarians, and funders. Kaitlin Mara may be reached at email@example.com. 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