Tag Archives: compulsory licensing

A meeting of copyright researchers and activists

I just attended the December 6-10 meeting in Kerala, India of the CopySouth Research Group (CSRG), an international network of copyright researchers and activists. The discussions were intense but cordial. We were all critical of the current state of copyright laws and regulations, which had become so restrictive that the copyright regime was becoming a major obstacle to access to knowledge. This was happening not only in scientific circles, where journals have established monopolistic practices over scientific research articles, but also in schools and universities, where photocopying by students and teachers was being criminalized. In subsequent posts, I will cover some of the ideas discussed in the meeting.

For this post, I want to focus on an interesting point about alternatives to the existing copyright regime. These ranged from Creative Commons, an idea which has been adopted in many parts of the world, free/open source software, to proposals to abolish the copyright system itself because it creates monopolies over cultural expressions. Given the range of proposals, it is easy to imagine how intense the debates were.

I eventually realized that some of the debates could have been avoided.

To see why this was so, consider the construction of a house. We could debate the architectural approach, the placement of rooms, the choice of building materials, etc. etc. In the course of building the house, we need to build scaffoldings. Art as well as science is involved in building a house. Also in building the scaffolding. But the requirements of the scaffolding are different from the requirements of the house itself. The criteria for a good house are different from a good scaffolding. Most important of all, the scaffoldings have to be torn down, when the house is ready to be used.

Some of the alternatives proposed to the copyright system are actually scaffoldings. Others are part of the house itself. Thus it makes no sense to debate whether the house is better than the scaffolding.

Alternatives like compulsory licensing, Creative Commons and the free software version called Gnu Public License (GPL) are often criticized because they will work only under the present copyright system and therefore require their advocates to defend the current system. They therefore find themselves at odds with more radical proponents who want to abolish the copyright system itself and replace it with another which does not create monopolies over ideas or their expressions.

But if the two sides realized that they are actually looking at the scaffolding and the house, they will quickly realize that the debate was unnecessary.

Compulsory licensing, Creating Commons, and GPL will reinforce the culture of free copying, sharing and exchange that will eventually lead to the collapse of the current copyright system, giving way to non-monopolistic alternatives to encouraging creative work and rewarding intellectual activity.

Greening the information sector

Social movements are beginning to respond to the specific issues involving the information economy. An illustrative set of responses can be seen in the programme of the Philippine Greens for a non-monopolistic information sector (Society, Ecology and Transformation by the Philippine Greens, 1997).

The Greens see the information sector as very important because of its special nature: information is a social good and it can be shared freely once it is created; and since information is a non-material good, the limits to material growth do not apply to information growth. The Greens consider their in harmony with this nature of information.

The following are the major elements of Philippine Greens’ programme for the information sector:

1. The right to know. It is the government’s duty to inform its citizens about matters that directly affect them, their families or their communities. Citizens have the right to access these information. The State may not use ‘national security’, ‘confidentiality of commercial transactions’, or ‘trade secret’ reasons to curtail this right.

2. The right to privacy. The government will refrain from probing the private life of its citizens. Citizens have the right to access information about themselves which have been collected by government agencies. The government may not centralize these separate databases by building a central database or by adopting a unified access key to the separate databases. Nobody will be forced against their will to reveal any information they do not want to make public.

3. No patenting of life forms. The following, whether or not modified by human intervention, may not be patented: life forms, biological and microbiological materials, biological and microbiological processes.

Life form patenting has become a major global issue, as biotechnology corporations move towards the direct manipulation and commercialization of human genetic material. Biotech firms are engaged in a frantic race to patent DNA sequences, microorganisms, plants, animal, human genetic matter and all other kinds of biological material, as well as in all kinds of genetic modification experiments to explore commercial possibilities. We much launch strong national and international movements to block these monopolistic moves and experiments, and to exclude life forms and other biological material from our patent systems.

4. The moral rights of intellectuals. Those who actually created an intellectual work or originated an idea have the right to be recognized that they did so. Nobody may claim authorship of works or ideas they did not originate. No one can be forced to release or modify a work or idea if he/she is not willing to do so. These and other moral rights of intellectuals will be respected and protected.

5. The freedom to share. The freedom to share and exchange information and knowledge will be recognized and protected. This freedom will take precedence over the information monopolies such as intellectual property rights (IPR) that the State grants to intellectuals.

A specific expression of the freedom to share is the “fair-use” policy. This policy reflects a historical struggle waged by librarians who see themselves as guardians of the world’s storehouse of knowledge, which they want to be freely accessible to the public. Librarians and educators have fought long battles and firmly held their ground on the issue of fair-use, which allows students and researchers access to copyrighted or patented materials without paying IPR rents. They have recently been losing ground due to the increasing political power of cyberlords.

6. Universal access. The government will facilitate universal access by its citizens to the world’s storehouse of knowledge. Every community will be enabled to have access to books, cassettes, videos, tapes, software, radio and TV programs, etc. The government will set up a wide range of training and educational facilities to enable community members to continually expand their know-how and knowledge.

7. Compulsory licensing. Universal access to information content is best implemented through compulsory licensing. Under this internationally-practiced mechanism, the government itself licenses others to copy patented or copyrighted material for sale to the public, but compels the licensees to pay the patent or copyright holder a government-set royalty fee. This mechanism is a transition step towards non-monopolistic payments for intellectual activity.

Many countries in the world have used and continue to use this mechanism for important products like pharmaceuticals and books. Compulsory licensing is an internationally-recognized mechanism specifically meant to benefit poorer countries who want to access technologies but cannot afford the price set by IPR holders, but even the U.S. and many European countries use it.

8. Public stations. Universal access to information infrastructure is best implemented through public access stations, charging at subsidized rates. These can include well-stocked public libraries; public telephone booths; community facilities for listening to or viewing training videos, documentaries, and the classics; public facilities for telegraph and electronic mail; educational radio and TV programs; and public access stations to computer networks.

Another approach in building public domain information tools is to support non-monopolistic mechanisms for rewarding intellectual creativity. Various concepts in software development and/or distribution have recently emerged, less monopolistic than IPRs. These include shareware, freeware, “copyleft” and the GNU General Public License (GPL). The latter is the most developed concept so far, and has managed to bridge the transition from monopoly to freedom in the information sector. In the personal computer arena, for example, the most significant challenger to the absolute monopoly of Microsoft Windows is the freely-available Linux/GNU operating system, which is covered by the GPL.

The first step in breaking up monopolies may be competition. But competition eventually leads to domination by the strong and those who can compete best, leading us back to monopolies. Isn’t it better to transcend competition and move further towards cooperation? This means a stronger public sector and sharing meager resources to be able to afford expensive but necessary facilities. In the information sector, this means building information infrastructures, tools and contents which are in the public domain.

9. The best lessons of our era. While all knowledge and culture should be preserved and stored for posterity, we need to distill the best lessons of our era, to be taught – not sold – to the next generations. This should be a conscious, socially-guided selection process, undertaken with the greatest sensitivity and wisdom. It is not something that can be left to a profit-oriented educational system, circulation-driven mass media, or consumption-pushing advertising.

[From Society, Ecology and Transformation by the Philippine Greens, 1997]