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Fighting intellectual poverty

(Who owns and controls the information societies?)

Georg C.F. Greve - Hamburg, November 3rd&4th 2003

The WSIS is the World Summit on the Information Society, it should lay the foundations for the what some refer to as Information Societies, others prefer talk about Knowledge Societies.

Discussing the Information Societies or Knowledge Societies should include discussion about who owns that Information and Knowledge, who controls the medium in which they reside, flow and develop and also who controls the languages we use within that medium. Yet all these issues are addressed ineffectively (Open Standards), inconsistently (Free Software) or not at all.

The issue that many governmental delegations would prefer to not deal with at all are so-called "intellectual property rights" (IPR), a term primarily covering Patents, Copyright, Trademarks, but also business models, geographic locators and other things that people wish to denominate as such.

All of these are very different and usually unrelated areas of law with very different effects on economy, politics and society. Mixing them is not only counterproductive for qualified scientific dispute, the term also puts forward the notion of thoughts being property. What it could mean to possess a thought remains unclear to the sceptical mind.

However, all these do have one thing in common.

It is both their function and their purpose to establish limited monopolies on intellectual creativity. For the remainder of the document, "Intellectual Property Rights" (IPRs) will therefore be referred to by what they are and do as "Limited Intellectual Monopolies" (LIMs).

Who controls what connects us all?

From the first cave paintings and musical instruments have creativity and the sharing of knowledge and ideas been what we build culture, friendship and society upon. Creativity and sharing of knowledge and what else inspires us are fundamental for making us human.

In 397 AD, Saint Augustinus wrote about this: "Omnis enim res, quae dando non deficit, dum habetur et non datur, nondum habetur, quomodo habenda est." ("For if a thing is not diminished by being shared with others, it is not rightly owned if it is only owned and not shared.")

When Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1476, a millennium after the writings of St. Augustinus, the effort of sharing knowledge was reduced by orders of magnitude, but the channels of distribution required expensive investments on the side of those who distribute it for us. To protect them, we invented the limited intellectual monopoly of Copyright for the benefit of society.

Now, another half-millennium later, digitalisation and most notably the internet have made sharing of knowledge possible at the speed of light, virtually no cost and very small investments on behalf of publishers. Every person in possession of a computer has a perfect (re-)production device and is a publisher by means.

The way we produce knowledge is to build upon each other and upon those that were before us. No-one stands alone and we are all standing upon the shoulders of giants. The reservoir we draw from for the cultural development of mankind and the link that ties us together as society is the public domain of knowledge.

This resource is being depleted by privatisation and expansion of the limited intellectual monopolies, such as Patents, Copyrights and Trademarks. These have become pure trading goods to be bought at minimum cost from our intellectually creative to be sold at maximum price to those of us who seek to impart ideas.

Invented for the purpose to benefit society, they often come at the expense of society today. Using the words of Louise Szente from South Africa: "Woe is the life of the modern day student living in 'Darkest Africa' for obviously we are still being kept in the slave quarters of the world. Harsh words? My friends, try and live in a society where such Acts as the Intellectual Property Acts of the world impedes your advancement in life."

Limited intellectual monopolies, of which Copyright is the most well-known, are strong tools and as such they should be used with great care. Invented for a different age with different issues and questions to be addressed, the Information Societies will need a new form of balance.

Putting forward the simplistic notion that more monopolies always mean more creation, implied in phrases like: "Intellectual property protection is essential to encourage the innovation and creativity in the Information Society." (38, Oct 24th 2003 Non-Paper by Mr. Samassekou) are ignoring the experience of millennia of human creativity where no such monopolies existed.

Therefore the Patents, Copyright and Trademarks (PCT) working group civil societies involved in the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) has worked hard to come to a more neutral statement like: "Striking a balance between limited information monopolies, on the one hand, and the use and sharing of knowledge, on the other, is essential to the Information Society."

Instead, we find statements like: "This balance is reflected by protection and flexibilities included in existing Intellectual Property agreements, and should be maintained." (38, Oct 24th 2003 Non-Paper by Mr. Samassekou) in the declaration of principles. A statement putting forward the notion that the current situation with appropriation of indigenous knowledge, digital divide and cultural starvation was already fair and balanced.

The central issues of PCTs and other LIMs is: Who owns the Information Societies and the intellectual reservoir upon which all of us depend?

Who controls our cultural techniques?

The other issue the PCT working group has been dealing with is that of software and open standards. Access to software determines our chances for education, communication, work. Like farming was the cultural technique of the agricultural society, software is the cultural technique of the Information Societies.

We cannot afford to have minorities control our essential cultural techniques, which is why the PCT group has been working hard to push Free Software, which gives everyone the freedoms to use, study, modify and copy software, thereby participate, learn, partake and share as an active member of the Information Societies.

The most problematic notion in this regard were those of "technological neutrality" and "freedom of choice." Both very sane principles that we support, but used in a confusing matter to imply the choice between proprietary and Free Software was a technical choice to make. Also it implies a choice for Free Software would be unfairly exclusive.

Indeed does Free Software not work well for those who seek to gain control over others with the intention of exploiting that control to increase their economic, social or political power. Free Software does forbid monopolisation of control over our essential cultural technique for the Information Societies.

Given a strong statement for Free Software, these properties would go a long way towards making the Information Societies equitable, non-discriminatory, inclusive and equally available to all.

Who controls our languages?

When communicating with others, it is important to speak the same languages. Those languages in the Information Societies are the standards we use for storage and transmission of data. Proprietary standards mean giving control over the languages we use to a single vendor, leaving those who can not work with that vendor speechless.

Also, when switching software vendors or even when upgrading within one vendor -- often after that vendor pushed us to upgrade -- we may be left speechless when communicating with our past selves: when failing to read old files we wrote with other applications or older versions of the application we are using.

The only way to solve these problems are Open Standards, which make the language of the Information Societies transparent and equally available to all. Therefore the importance of standardisation is widely recognised by all participants to the WSIS, e.g. "Standardization is one of the essential building blocks of the Information Society." (40, Oct 24th 2003 Non-Paper by Mr. Samassekou).

Unfortunately, no phrasing found in the WSIS documents so far would ensure Open Standards, because a standard can only be open if it is freely implementable and publicly documented.

Therefore the PCT working group has been pushing hard to get these included and make sure the languages of the Information Societies will be available to us all.

written for WSIS compilation by the Boell Foundation, Germany