Patent laws come under fire

March 30, 2001

Regulations controlling intellectual property rights need to be radically overhauled to ensure the free exchange of knowledge, according to John Howkins, chairman of the Collaboration and Ownership in the Digital Economy (Code) conference at Cambridge University.

The conference, which starts on Wednesday, will examine whether the success of open source or free software such as the Linux operating system could be a model for a different approach to intellectual property rights.

The organisers believe that it could herald a move away from claiming property ownership at every stage of development to a new approach across the creative industries to copyright, trademarks and patents.

Mr Howkins, chairman of internet technology firm Tornado and author of books including the forthcoming The Creative Economy , said the pendulum had swung too far in recent years and had resulted in the "privatisation of intellectual property". He said that the growing trend towards staking a claim on every piece of information was restricting its rightful exchange.

The partly commercial mapping the human genome was one example, with the 1998 Supreme Court decision to allow US patents to be granted on business methods, a lesser known but equally disturbing precedent.

"I am not in any way opposed to intellectual property rights. They are extremely good and work extremely well 90 per cent of the time, but around the edges we are in deep trouble," Mr Howkins said.

As a result, innovation was slowed up by what he called "technology lock-in".

There were also moral questions about having knowledge that should be public property under private control, Mr Howkins added.

He was adamant that nothing less than a comprehensive overhaul of intellectual property laws was needed to bring coherence to decisions on its various aspects.

"Parliament has only discussed intellectual property twice in the past 20 years," he said.

The Code conference is an attempt to bring these issues to prominence and to make it clear that seemingly disparate cases such as Napster, Linux and developing countries' desire to make cheap generic versions of expensive drugs are related and ought to be looked at together.

As well as having a "reality check on intellectual property", as Mr Howkins put it, the event will explore methods of working collaboratively that could be as good as, if not better than, existing practices. The ways in which university researchers shared knowledge was a good example, he said.

"They do not mind people getting rich, but they do not like the fact that people cannot talk about their developments within the academic community after applying for a patent."

However, conference delegates may find it difficult to bring about change quickly -Mr Howkins accepted that as well as intellectual property being a complicated issue, there were precious few votes in the issue.

Speakers at the three-day event will come from the worlds of software, law, economics, the arts, science and policy. They include Bruce Perens, the "father" of the Open Source movement; Tim Hubbard, joint head of the open source human genome project; and Robin Mansell, professor of new media and the internet at the London School of Economics.

Details: www.cl.cam.ac.uk/CODE
Tel: 020 7973 6573

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