The Internet as we know it is the result of the waiving of intellectual property rights by not only its funders but by major corporations, more interested in its growth as a platform for other money-making products and services operations rather than possible license revenues. In consequence ICANN, IETF and W3C leapfrogged the dead hand of the ITU. Now the ITU is offering to ride to the rescue because US lawyers threaten to block the way forward.
IPV4 and the World Wide Web did not trash X25, LYNX, Mosaic and other competitors as the basis for global on-line communications because they were inherently better. They did so because the intellectual property behind them was made freely (as in “free” beer) available. The mobile communications market took off because the GSM standards were similarly “non-commercial”.
Now it appears that the ITU is about to intervene because a cartel of major US players and their patent lawyers are seeking to stand in the way and prevent the rest of the world from leapfroging North America and Europe into the mobile world. This could well be the start of a global trade war which the West will almost certainly lose far more than the license revenues directly involved.
One effect will be to bring about the long overdue reform of intellectual property rights. I hope that will include a return to a regime akin to that which encouraged and rewarded those who created the first industrial revolution: the Statute of Monopolies and the Statute of Anne – 14 years and loss of rights (or at least compulsory licensing) on the part of those who fail to bring their innovations to market. That simplistic way forward does, of course, raise as many questions as it answers but time is no longer on “our side”. WIPO, like the ITU is subject to majority voting and if the Geneva Declaration and the Access to Knowledge proposals gain similar momentum it may not be an option.
Meanwhile ICANN is now fighting for survival, having stirred a similar hornets nest of IPR issues with the ambitions of US registrars to earn more revenues from the sale of domain names rather than sort out a governance system that is well past its sell-by date. Once again the underlying issues are very messy – and time is not on our side (whichever side that is).
I have just agreed to organise a competition to get Masters Students (all subjects, not just the “techies” but business schools, lawyers and theologians) to look at “The Meaning of Trust in the On-line World”. The idea is to get the thought leaders of tomorrow looking at some of the fundamental issues where the UK has to help lead if they are not to have to emigrate for work. That way we can get radical ideas into play without embarrassing those having to defend difficult (and worse, unprofitable as well as unsustainable) position until they find a better bandwagon to jump on. [I do to tend to mix my metaphors, but I hope you get the message].
Perhaps there is a need for a similar exercise with regard to IPR and the need to once again unleash (but also reward) the creativity of the West. If so, I hope it will encourage entrants to also look at the need for change to the sclerotic testing and regulatory regimes (from pharmaceuticals to financial services) which increase cost and delay launch until patent protection is close to expiry.