No seat at the WIPO table for open source

Back in July, a group of 68 economists, scientists, industry representatives, academics, open-source advocates, consumer advocates and librarians proposed that the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) host a meeting on the use of open collaborative development models. Examples described in the proposal include IETF standards, open-source software such as Apache and Apple’s Darwin OS, the Human Genome Project and open academic journals, among others. The WIPO’s initial response was quite favorable. Dr. Francis Gurry, WIPO Assistant Director and Legal Counsel, was quoted by Nature Magazine as saying “The use of open and collaborative development models for research and innovation is a very important and interesting development… The director-general looks forward with enthusiasm to taking up the invitation to organize a conference to explore the scope and application of these models.”

Needless to say, business interests like Microsoft saw such high-profile acceptance of open source as a threat, and immediately lobbied to have the idea squashed. The Washington Post and National Journal’s Technology Daily report that Lois Boland, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Acting Director of International Relations, dismissed the meeting as out of the WIPO’s area, saying the organization is “clearly limited to the protection of intellectual property.” “To have a meeting whose primary objective is to waive or remove those protections seems to go against the mission,” Boland told National Journal. She argued specifically against the discussion of open-source models, claiming that open-source software is not protected under copyright law but only contract law, which is not in the domain of WIPO. She also protested the manner in which the meeting was organized, saying WIPO’s agenda should be driven by member nations and the idea came from outside the organization. Under increasing pressure, WIPO canceled the meeting, saying the polarized political debate made the possibility of international policy discussion “increasingly remote.”

Lawrence Lessig’s blog blasts Boland, saying “If Lois Boland said this, then she should be asked to resign. The level of ignorance built into that statement is astonishing, and the idea that a government official of her level would be so ignorant is an embarrassment.” Personally I think Lessig is missing the broader picture here, or perhaps he is just not cynical enough. Rather than ignorance, Boland is simply showing unusual candor in her statements. Her position is that WIPO should promote international IP laws that support the current content industry, regardless of how that affects new upstart industries, national productivity, the economy or other important concerns. In the words of The Economist, she is being pro-business, but not pro-market. I agree with Lessig that this is abhorrent, but given how the U.S. continues to force brand-new IP protections down the world’s collective throat it seems to be a fair description of current U.S. policy.

The issues described in the proposal to the WIPO are not going to go away, and will eventually need to be addressed with or without the involvement of WIPO. As Ed Black, president of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, said on hearing the meeting was canceled: “Does this indicate that WIPO is abdicating authority and responsibility for these issues, including open source for the future? If so, we will all live by that, but then so must they. They should step up the plate or step aside. … It is inexplicable that they would shut the door on what are clearly important issues.”