Why do intellectual property issues matter?
One of WSIS's stated goals is to examine ways to "protect the free flow of information and communication." Electronic communication systems made the free flows of information a technical possibility on a global scale for an unprecedented, though still insufficient, number of people. Numerous initiatives work to bridge the 'digital divide', to enlarge the number of people who have access to the means of communication.
Despite these positive developments, open societies with free flows of information and the participation of people, face major dangers in the Information Age. These dangers not only stem from governments and pressure groups that limit the freedom of the media for political and economic reasons. These issues are urgent and they are well known and documented.
Lesser known but at least as important is a more insidious barrier to the free flows of information: the emerging regimes of globally enforceable Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) aiming at locking away large part of our culture into the vaults of a very small number of large corporations.
This paper brings together a number of key thinkers from East and the West exposing the deeply problematic nature of the emerging copyright regime and discussing new concepts of how free access to information can be combined with incentives to create and publish. We do not have to choose between the total lock-down of information by a few large corporations and plain exploitation destroying all knowledge production. This is a false set of choices, because there are considerably more options. While some of them are already producing great results, like free software, others still are in a conceptual phase. What is sorely lacking is a broad public debate over how to create a fair IPR system. Helping to create this debate is a goal of this paper.
Open and equitable Information Societies require free access to information, because information is the base of all future production. If this raw material is closely controlled, people are excluded from participating in the Information Societies as anything but passive consumers.
Today, there is a conflict between those who see information as a commodity to be sold to consumers, and those who see information as a raw material that needs to be freely available. How this conflict is resolved will profoundly shape tomorrow's Information Societies. The pressure of IP lobbies that trie to control access to information with legal and technological means and to create scarcity out of abundance leads to a dead end. It is quite literally a dead end when we see how access to medicine is denied to those who need it, because prices are locked high by way of unfair IPR regimes. Similarly threatening is the creation of a global Digital Restrictions Management for electronic documents that will have to be absolute, total and all encompassing to be functional. These new rules and standards originating in the exclusive environments of large corporations shape our societies in a subtle but effective fashion. Today, as never before, technology has the possibility of changing and redefining people's life. Interests hidden in seemingly neutral technical standards build dominion on knowledge, marking the path towards Information Feudalism.
How can we ensure an Information Commons where the greatest possible number of people has unrestricted access to scientific and other types of information? How can we set up an infrastructure that would free information from the control of the distributors whose role was created by the difficulties of moving around printed matter and other physical objects?
We have to develop, discuss and implement models how to create and share digital information that are open and dynamic. Taking full advantage of the Internet's empowering capacities, the commons is based on the very idea that information can be copied and distributed easily and cheaply by everyone. This is not merely a technical, but a political and ultimately a moral question. As Eben Moglen, Professor of Law at Columbia University in New York has put it: "If you could make enough food to feed everyone on earth by baking one loaf of bread and press one button, what would be the moral case for denying anyone the food."