G8 on Intellectual Monopolies: Not so Great


Alongside the main show of the G8 circus, there are a number of supporting acts that run in parallel with it. One of these is the “G8 Intellectual Property Experts Group” (IPEG). As you might guess from the name, it is hardly likely to be critical of the copyright and patent laws that are wreaking so much havoc around the world, especially online, since the digital world is stifled by monopolies even more than the analogue one. However, the group does recognise the special nature of the latter in its report:

Promoting and protecting innovation via an efficient system of Intellectual Property rights has become an essential factor for the sustainable development of the world economy.

The exponential growth in the exploitation of Intellectual Property rights at the trans-national level and the surge of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) have made Intellectual Property a key component in sectors as diverse as trade, industrial policy, public health, consumer safety, environmental protection, and the Internet.

In this framework, an in-depth reflection on the impact of the Internet and new technologies on the spread of IP rights infringements seems both inevitable and necessary. This will also be an important element of the strategies to ensure that Information and Communication Technology fully serves the goal of fostering innovation and creating sustainable economic growth and prosperity.

Pity, then, that the current system is anything but efficient, and that economic research shows that innovation is not promoted by it.

As you might expect, IPEG gets terribly excited by the Anti Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), but there's something else it is also in favour of, that is new to me:

Governments have a special duty to set an example in the fight against counterfeiting and piracy. In line with this view, at the Hokkaido Toyako Summit in 2008 leaders agreed to reaffirm the Okinawa Charter commitment to ensure that governments use software in full compliance with Intellectual Property rights protection.

The IPEG has elaborated and approved the attached set of guidelines (ATT. 1) to contribute to reducing the risk of public networks being used to infringe IP rights.

I obviously missed this Okinawa Charter from last year's G8 summit in Japan: bad me. The current document gives a little more detail:

Responding to advances in Information and Communications Technology, the G8 leaders at the 2000 Kyushu-Okinawa Summit adopted the Okinawa Charter on Global Information Society, which calls for governments to use software in full compliance with Intellectual Property rights protection. At the 2008 Hokkaido-Toyako Summit, the G8 leaders renewed this commitment, and called upon other countries to follow it.

Since Okinawa, technological developments – including the advent of peer-to-peer file sharing – have posed new challenges and concerns.

Governmental networks constitute a significant portion of Information Technology (IT) and Internet resources, and are thus exposed to the risks and problems associated with Intellectual Property infringement.

By reaffirming the commitments made in the Okinawa Charter, and ensuring that laws, regulations, and policies are in place to reduce the risk that public computing resources are used to infringe IP rights, governments can set an example for the private sector and for IT users in the fight against counterfeiting and piracy, and, at the same time, safeguard the interests of security and transparency of their own administrations.

There are a number of fallacies here. First, that such a thing as “full compliance with Intellectual Property rights protection” has a well-defined meaning. After all, what may be infringing in one country is not necessarily the same in another: software patents, which are not recognised “as such” in Europe, are a good example of something that is jurisdiction-dependent.

The other fallacy is that by putting policies in place that “reduce the risk that public computing resources are used to infringe IP rights”, this will somehow “safeguard the interests of security and transparency of their own administrations”. Microsoft's poorly-secured products, which have caused billions of pounds worth of damage around the world, including to governments, are neither secure nor transparent. On the contrary: their black-box like nature makes them singular opaque to scrutiny (and less secure).

This kind of confusion is typical of a document that has a distinct air of desperation about it. It suggests that the fans of intellectual monopolies are beginning to flail around for a handhold – any handhold – in an attempt to defy the pull of history, and to lock down knowledge through the use of overlong copyright and overbroad patents while they can. It is a further sign of increasing irrelevance of the G8 meeting as power begins to shift to the developing world, which has quite different ideas and priorities when it comes to enforcing Western monopolies on their internal markets.

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