A half-day panel at this year's CES discussed the ways in which technology can be used to further global development, by providing education opportunities and creating new solutions to community business problems. Beyond that, though, these new systems for information and communications technology (or ICTs) could easily affect IP policy around the world.
For example, where companies put in place technology to solve a local business problem—for instance, when a company creates a call-in agricultural helpline, the way Cisco and British Telecom did—they are not just providing a charitable service, according to many of the panelists from the CES talk. The idea is that these projects should be sustainable by local groups—either as continuing public service community efforts, or as private businesses that happen to benefit the community.
Furthermore, the process of setting up the database creates, or at least compiles, a store of valuable knowledge. In fact, one of the major facets of the project, as outlined at the CES talk, was that the value of this knowledge can be measured at least in part according to what the farmers were willing to pay for it.
Now, if this is a valuable service that is supposed to sustain and grow itself, it's only natural that its owners and operators will try to maximize that income. That may not mean raising rates—after all, their target market consists of less-developed communities. But it does mean that maintaining control of the information becomes more crucial to maintaining an income stream. After all, once the advice is passed along, there's no reason for someone else not to compile it and undercut the current 5 rupee (approx. 12 cent) price. This could start that venture thinking about how it might prevent the reselling of its information—looking at existing or potential database protection laws, or even copyright laws. There could well be advantages to this newly-formed incumbent locking out follow-on innovators (and potential competitors) with proprietary standards and systems, or with restrictive laws.
To counter this possibility, a number of the companies involved have affirmed their commitment to open source software, stressing the need for interoperability as technological markets evolve. This is encouraging, but by no means a guarantee against anticompetitive activity further on down the road.
Nor is this a criticism of the model of encouraging development by implementing technology business models—after all, if corporations are to give of their expertise, this is concrete support that plays to their strengths. Cisco is not only going to have the technical expertise in the implemented system; they also are operating in a context they can adapt to more easily (from a business standpoint, as opposed to a social movement). But hopefully good information policy won't take a backseat to increasing IP value.
On the other hand, the venture itself could become a defendant. What are the sources for the information passed on via the helpline? Is it passed along verbatim? Is the information itself covered by IP law, either as a database compilation, or as copyrighted material taken from the original source?
Or take the educational efforts at development. The One Laptop Per Child project, and other parallel projects to expand technology education in the developing world are not just focusing on dropping off hardware in places that lack it. The focus is on using the computer as a means of communication and information sharing, not merely as a word processor and spreadsheet calculator. The One Laptop project, for example, has created hardware and software that explicitly encourages collaboration and sharing—all of the laptops can link together in a wireless mesh network, and users can easily share files and applications, saving documents and media on other nearby laptops.
If that's the case, then we should keep in mind that it's exactly this sort of behavior, and this sort of technology, that makes a lot of content industry incumbents nervous. We hear (and occasionally say) so much about what information technology has done to disrupt old music business models. We should expect the same to happen in other contexts. And we shouldn't expect to anticipate exactly what those changes might be.
Part of the philosophy that Nicholas Negroponte outlined in his keynote was the idea that educators wouldn't be “trained” on each use of the laptop, simply because the foundation wanted the students to discover new uses for them.
This means that, beyond using the laptops for sharing the photos they take with the webcams, or the music composed on the built-in software, they may well start sharing information and media taken from the web. In fact, that would seem to be a large part of the learning process—using and navigating the online sea of information online.
So what are the legal consequences of these uses? If they occurred here in the US, one of the first things people would say is that they're likely to be fair use. But the flexible exceptions and limitations that clearly allow educational and research uses in the US aren't necessarily available overseas. In fact, a fair use regime as robust and statutorily grounded as the US's is a rarity in the world.
This is why it's critical that, as more and more people in a variety of jurisdictions start taking up the tools that let us transfer digital files so easily, users' rights are preserved and established on a global basis. Given the constant pressure that fair use takes from the content industry here and in a lot of the developed world, it might be difficult to convince an international body, where a majority of countries don't have explicit fair use rights, to adopt the same. However, it should be an easier sell—common sense, in fact—that certain uses should be a minimum guarantee for uses, such as education, research, journalism, and adaptation for the disabled.
But the efforts of these particular projects aren't the only reason to encourage international agreement on limitations and exceptions to copyright. It's also a way to ensure that furthering intellectual property around the world isn't simply equated with lengthening copyright terms and raising infringement penalties. It means that, along with having international standards outlining the floors and ceilings of national copyright laws, countries can, within those bounds, create laws that are specifically geared to their legal, social, and economic situations.