Access to Knowledge – Mobilizing Industry

I’m at the Access to Knowledge conference at Yale Law School today – I’ve missed some of the heavy-hitting opening talks (Yochai Benkler, Ronaldo Lemos, Jamie Boyle), but there are panels filled with smart people, including the first session of the morning, which asks about the role of industry in the world of Access to Knowledge.

(The term “Access to Knowledge” is impossibly broad, and as one of the morning’s panelists points out, seems to be suffering some brand confusion. Evidently Jamie Love argued yesterday that A2K is specifically about the legal and policy challenges associated with making sure that people in the developing world have access to educational, medical and media information. But it’s still, in my mind, a very broad coalition, that attempts to include everything from open press issues, to generic drugs to open models for distributing music…)

Nagla Rizk from the American University in Cairo has been studying open source software and music in Egyot, or as she charmingly puts it, the Penguins and the Larks. Both music and software, she points out are outputs of creativity and huamn talents. Both are labor intensive, digitizable,and subject to economies of scale. By definition, the outputs lend themselves to piracy, and are “granular” enough that they can be built through oeer production.

Egypt is a critical market in the Arab world – it’s both the geographic and conceptual center of the Arab entertainment world. It has a huge audience – more than 50% of population is under 24 years old. But the Open Source movement is a small space – there are only 10 companies that distribute open source software and four that produce F/OSS. There’s roughly 50 active participants in the community, closer to 500 less active members – these folks are a subset of the Egyptian blogosphere, which she identifies as 5,000 strong.

While most Egyptian blogs identify themselves as personal, a strong component of Egyptian blogs are highly political, and there’s a strong overlap between the world of blogs, the open source software world and underground music. She shows us Manal and Alaa’s blog as an example of a leader in the field. The connection between open source and the political movement, she argues, is an obstacle to open source adoption. The government is a very large consumer of IT – they have a strong commercial alliance with the big software players and tend to marginalize the open source developers as “unqualified” to produce software. The open source developers, in turn, point out that there’s no training available for software development.

Moving on to the music scene, Rizk points out that copyright isn’t strongly linked to income in Egypt. Stars make albums and video clips, but gain very little revenue from these activities, in part because piracy is so pervasive. Instead, money comes from live performance, especially at weddings. Top Lebanese pop stars make $40,000 for a wedding performance, an astounding sum in a middle income country. (Egyptian stars make less, closer to $25-35,000.) Some players are choosing to move beyond the middle men and pioneering new models that allow them to sell content and performance directly to their audiences, much as Brazilian musicians have done in the Technobrega scene. The sheer dysfunction of the market, plus the political content of the underground music, is pushing musicians to experiment with creative new models.

Jule Sigall from Microsoft makes the argument that “Access to Knowledge” as we consider it is a bit too broad – it’s probably useful to focus solely around the legal and policy questions around knowledge. Specifically the question Microsoft is interested in is whether there’s a role for copyright and patent in solving A2K issues. While much of the copyright and patent structures around the world are the results of lobbying by companies like Microsoft, he argues that there’s a “grassroots recognition of intellectual property rights”, pointing to European recognition of conventions on human rights as including the right to profit from the creation of intellectual property.

Brad Biddle from Intel is working directly on projects that are probably closer to the heart of most A2K activists than Microsoft’s “grassroots movement”. He explains how Intel became a partner of civil society organizations in lobbying against the WIPO broadcast treaty, which began its life as an awful piece of legislation that gave broadcasters special rights when content they’d aired (open licensed or not) when distributed in other media like the Internet. Biddle credits civil society as being “way ahead” of industry on recognizing the importance of the treaty and the need to oppose it. There was effective cooperation between civil society and corporations, but it required a great deal of overcoming mistrust, and it was very hard to move beyond adhoc cooperation.

Biddle sees some other “low hanging fruit” where corporations and civil society could cooperate around A2K issues. Copyright limitations and exceptions – protections of robust fair use, for one – is to the advantage both of consumer electronics vendors and activists. Patent quality – strongly limiting the number of software patents to ensure that only truly novel ones are issued – is a major activist interest, and also helps release companies from the enormous cost of maintaining patent portfolios and trading them with other companies. Intel’s “debacle” over processor serial numbers has convinced the company that they need to ally with civil society on privacy issues as well.

Brent Woodworth heads IBM’s crisis response team, a group that’s helped provide information and communication support in over seventy disasters in more than forty countries. The team has responded to natural disasters as well as to acts of terror, and works both in countries at peace and at war. The importance of sharing knowledge can be about efficiently allocating resources – he offers an example from Rwanda during the genocide where some agencies had trucks, others had petrol, and the two needed to work together. He points to SAHANA, a system built for relief work in Sri Lanka to match donations with needy recipients, register refugees and map resources in relief situations. The system is open source – which is critical, Woodworth says, because the semi-proprietary systems make reuse difficult – was built by IBM, Microsoft, Accenture and others. They’ve discovered that investments pre-disaster in systems like SAHANA give four times the impact of investments after a disaster.

Andrew McLaughlin, Google’s senior policy counsel (also good friend and former collaborator), argues that we’re at a special moment in terms of the Access to Knowledge “meme” because the Internet is finally starting to realize the democratizing potential we’ve long talked about. Cheap computers and bandwidth lead to a culture of content production. The fact that people are producing videos, remixing, writing blogs and generally producing content challenges existing ideas about access to information. With this shift taking place, the groups that used to be in power – professional content creators – are trying to use the law to calcify the advantages and privleges they’ve had. “The tools of individual production are so widespread, so awesome, so powerful,” and capable of creating content at near zero cost that they’re threatening existing political and commercial relationships.

Andrew points out that in his own world, the last few months have included fighting the Youtube blocks in Thailand, Turkey and Brazil, the challenges to Google Maps and Google Earth in a number of countries, and the Blogger block in Pakistan. While NGOs shouldn’t rely on corporations as allies, sometimes those interests coincide. “Be wary, but be opportunistic.” He points out that some organizations like Electronic Frontier Foundation tip him off on legislation that would impact Google’s bottom line, which tends to create alliances between Google and the civil society groups.

Andrew offers two places where he thinks Google can be very helpful to the A2K movement. One is in creating revenue streams for the digitization of information. In the developing world, there’s a great need to create locally relavent content in the hopes of bringing local users online. This can be a costly process, scanning and indexing documents. But advertising provides a possibility of monetizing this content and supporting the efforts to bring it online. He also argues that Google and A2K are likely to ally on a few fundamental IP issues: reform of the patent system and protection of fair use rights outside of US law. In answering a question about Google’s lobbying of the US government, he notes, “We’re making the argument that Silicon Valley is Detroit, and that in this case what the trade representatives should be working for is robust fair use.” He later makes the point, “Censorship is a trade barrier,” and that as businesses we should consider this issue as part of free trade agreements.

The final presenter is Pam Samuelson from the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology, who identifies herself as “fighting the IP wars far before it was called ‘access to knowledge'”. She explains that the alliances between civil society and corporations can be a marriage of convenience. While industry and civil society worked closely together on the WIPO broadcast treaty, she feels like industry left civil society by the roadside in the Digital Millenium Copyright Act. She makes the point that we sometimes have to think many steps in advance – letting the entertainment industry get an extension of copyright terms has “whetted their appetite” for further concessions from Congress – we may need to band together and fight battles well before they’re at a critical state so that we continue to protect the rights we have today.

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