Politically, IP is where the Environmental movement was 30 years ago

MARCH 24, 2006

This speech was delivered in my capacity as Director of FFII-UK in the “IP and the Knowledge Commons - Political Parties” panel of the TACD conference on The Politics and Ideology of Intellectual Property, which took place in Brussels on the 20-21 March 2006.

Politically, IP is where the Environmental movement was 30 years ago

I always prefer discussion and questions so I’m going to keep my formal presentation very short. In keeping it short I’m also going to restrict myself to telling you one, well maybe, two things.

The first is that, at present, when it comes to intellectual property there are no political parties. That is there are no, or very few, discernible ideological differences between political grouping on intellectual property (and on innovation policy in general). If you look at other areas: labour law, monetary policy, etc you will see clear differences between political parties. In advance you can predict with a fair degree of confidence which way a party or grouping will go. But when it comes to intellectual property that really isn’t the case.

What this means is that when it comes to voting either all parties tend to go the same way or all parties split. The most extreme case I know of this second situation was the first reading of the European Parliament on software patents when practically all of the major groups split, in some cases not only at the supra-national but at the national level.

Why is this? I think the answer is fairly simple. For intellectual property there are, very, very roughly, two sets of interests. On one side you have rightsholders. On the other side you have the general public. Rights-holders see direct gains from extensions of IP be they in term or scope. The general public by contrast while they may see benefits from extensions in the form of increased innovation, also bear the costs.

At the same time rightsholders are generally very concentrated while the general public is diffuse and poorly organized – so much so that many significant changes pass virtually unnoticed.

This means that:

  1. much of the time the debate is very one-sided. Because it is one-sided there is no need for parties to take ‘sides’
  2. the interests that do exist are very broad-based and tend to impinge equally across the political spectrum

This brings me to my second point which comes in the form of an analogy. It is the analogy between debates over innovation and intellectual property and those over environmental issues. I believe that where we stand today politically with respect to innovation policy and IP is where we stood with respect to environmental issues 30 or 40 years ago.

Just like innovation policy, with environmental issues you see concentrated interests pitted against those of the general public. There also you have growing political engagement as a result of significant external changes. And just like with the environment 40 years ago we are just beginning to build a movement to properly represent the public on the relevant issues.

Today when you look at a political party it will have a position on the environment and we even have ‘Green’ parties – albeit generally small ones – specifically focused on those issues. We’ve even got to the stage where, in the UK, when the Conservatives (which is a right wing party) took out full-page ads to announce its new policy agenda one of the five bullet points was about the environment.

Similarly I think 30 years from now information and innovation policy will have the same prominence. All political parties will have positions on these kinds of issues, and not buried away somewhere in their manifesto but the kind of things they mention when they take out those full-page ads.

There will also be a much, much fuller civil society engagement in these issues. Just think of Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Conservation International now and how they were 40 years ago (if they even existed). In 40 years I believe we’ll see organizations on the same kind of scale and with the same level of membership in the area of innovation policy.

This won’t necessarily mean no IP, but I do believe it will mean a far better balance in the way we use and regulate IP, and that ladies and gentleman can only be a good thing.

Thank you.