WIPO was here at the Stanford Law School for a conference entitled 'WIPO Comes to Silicon Valley: High tech IP issues in a global marketplace'. Luckily, Larry Lessig was there to inspire at least some debate about the current status quo in global intellectual property law (although I heard that most of the audience was too wimpy to question him in public, but to rather seathe away in their greasy corners, whispering like jealous children, about how shocking were his challenges).
It was pretty obvious that nobody coming to this conference was willing to question the current status quo that has led to so much extremism on both ends of the debate. I went to a panel talking about domain name disputes, and was struck by the paranoia of many lawyers who are tasked with protecting their company's good name on the Internet. It seems as though it is an almost impossible task to prevent fraudsters and cyber squatters from taking every opportunity to make the most out of the Internet's global reach. I'm certainly not advocating that fraudsters be left to build empires in competition with companies that have worked hard to build a valuable brand, but I also believe that if markets are not being served, and if a company has no intention of serving that market, then there should be some room for local innovation and development so that everyone can share in knowledge prosperity.
If we want everyone around the world to share more equally in technological advancement and its rewards, we need to empower the smaller innovators by building more flexibility into what has become a starkly rigid system. This conference made me realise more than ever how human greed is restricting what could be such an enormous opportunity for innovation to spread to countries around the world in a way that was never before possible. What is instead being spread, is a new type of imperialism that demands revenue from populations that have already been stripped of most of their natural resources, and are now being prevented at every turn from enjoying access to the development that can only come from shared knowledge.
Let's get specific before this starts sounding rant-like. The latest example in IP imperialism is a case from South Africa, where a local newspaper is being sued by US-based Wiley Publishing, the publishing house that publishes the 'For Dummies' series. The Mail and Gaurdian, they said, violated its trademark when they published a news story entitled, 'Cricket for dummies'. I don't know whether this is a find from some of the copyright 'bounty hunters' that I heard about for the first time here, but whatever policing is being done on Internet content, it is overstepping more than a few common-sense boundaries.
And when I told this story to the panel as an illustration of how extreme the law had become as a tool for stamping out smaller competition, they just didn't get it.