Net effect

  • 14/12/2002

Net effect Is there a special need for a politics to protect the public domain? What might such a politics of intellectual property look like?

The intellectual property scene today is just like the American environmental movement in the 1950s. A rag-tag bunch cared about the park system; there were hunters and birdwatchers. Burning rivers and oil spills drew flurries of outrage. Just so, the intellectual property world has start-up software engineers, libraries, appropriationist artists, biotech researchers, who get worked up about Microsoft's allegedly anti-competitive practices or the problematic morals of patenting human genes. Lacking, though, is a general framework. Intellectual property issues need analytic tools to enable a perception of common interest, in apparently disparate situations, that cut across traditional oppositions. What kinds of tools are we talking about? Let's turn to the environment for help.

The environmental movement was deeply influenced by two basic analytical frameworks. The idea of ecology (the fragile, complex and unpredictable interconnections between living systems) and the idea of welfare economics (how markets can fail to make activities internalise their full costs). Combined, these ideas yielded a powerful and disturbing conclusion. Markets would routinely fail to make activities internalise their own costs, particularly environmental costs. And this failure would, routinely, short-circuit fragile ecological systems, with ugly consequences.

The combined analytic helped to provide the environmental movement with agenda, rhetoric and a perception of common interest underneath its coalition politics. Those ideas flitered into mainstream American politics. Environmental groups played their part, through the dramatic theatre of a Greenpeace protest, or the tweety respectability of the Audubon society. To me, this suggests a strategy for a politics of intellectual property.

In both areas, the recipe for failure in the decision-making process is the same. In a democracy, bad decisions are primarily made by and for a few stakeholders (land-owners/content providers). Think of the costs and benefits of acid rain generating power or, by analogy, of retrospectively increasing copyright term limits on works for which copyright had expired, pulling them back out of the public domain.

Then there are the failures in the way we think about issues. The environmental movement pointed out that there were structural reasons for bad environmental decisions. The same is true about the public domain. In economic analyses of information issues, the source-blindness of an

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