A Spectrum of Perspectives

05 November 2008

There is a common axiom that you should not discuss politics or religion at a dinner party. But what about intellectual property? One part of the Ip's What's Up team found out that this topic can be just as impassioning as the others.

This past weekend I had the opportunity of attending a friend's birthday party. A birthday party is probably one of the last places you would expect to find much conversation about intellectual property, but we had plenty. The various opinions seemed to represent a good cross-section of different perspectives on Intellectual Property Rights (IPR), so I think it could be helpful to offer a little recap.

[This video and the sound recording in it are under a different license than the blog post.  Video: cc by-sa 2008 goldenrail.  Sound recording in the video: "nunoo" cc by-sa 2004 maki, www.myspace.com/theopenwound.]

[Technical difficulties?  If the video does not appear above, you can watch it at youtube.]

Stronger is Better

First, I spoke with an Economic Counselor for the United States. He had met with the local government earlier in the week to check on the progress in its war on piracy. The local government has worked closely with the United States and other developed nations in effort to strengthen its IP laws and increase the level of copyright enforcement in the country. This gentleman clearly represented the camp working for stronger IPR, as well as the international relations and trade aspect concerns that are part of IPR.

Intellectual property is now one of the biggest commodities developed nations have. In order for these countries to reap the maximum benefits, the whole world needs to have strong intellectual property laws. Countries with large creative industries work hard to help make this happen. People on the developing country side can also be in this group. They want stronger protection in order to encourage foreign investment and often to protect their growing creative industries.  Stronger IP laws protect their domestic creations as much, or even more so, than foreign ones.

What Good is Protection if I Can't Get the Goods?

Next, I spoke to someone on the complete opposite end of the spectrum, a British NGO-worker who decried the lack of books in the country. "We just need more books, I don't care if they're copied or not!" she exclaimed. Here is one of the common arguments against increased copyright enforcement in the country. The legal supply clearly doesn't meet the demand. For those who want the products but cannot find legitimate copies, especially for things like text books, copyright seems like nothing more than a barrier to development.

Supply that cannot meet demand is not just a problem in the book industry. Two years ago the demand for Nigerian Home Videos in Nigeria was estimated at 50 million buyers, but only about 500,000 legitimate copies were produced. (NCC Committed to National Copyright Policy & Reform, 10 NCC Copyright Bulletin December, 2006 Vol. 3 No. 6, ed. Charles O. Obi.) Similar circumstances exist elsewhere, with music industries in many developing countries, and even to some extent in developed countries when dealing with out-of-print books and such.

Consumers who are generally concerned with copyright often justify obtaining infringing copies of these types of materials. They point out that the author wouldn't be receiving anything if they didn't buy the infringing copy because they cannot buy a legitimate copy. They may also blame the author for the shortage of legal goods.

Eh, So What?

Near the end of the evening, I had an encounter with a third group. Those who really don't care about or pay attention to IPR. Sometimes they are ignorant of the laws; sometimes, they just do not care. In this case, they were most likely the later. A high up government official from a developed country handed a higher-up official from the same country a clearly pirated DVD of an American Television series. For these people, piracy and infringement are matters for other people, for governments, enforcement agencies and private rights holders. They did not create the copy; they did not sell it; they are just 'innocent' purchasers.

This seems to be a very large group, and it blends into other groups, people who believe it is ok to make a copy of a cd for a friend, those who indiscriminately clip artwork from internet sites. It is highly likely that we have all fallen into this group at some time or another, and many people may be in this group with regards to some IP while falling into another group in regards to other IP.

In Between the Extremes

Of course, there are plenty of groups that care about IP but fall somewhere between the extremes represented at the party. There are organizations who want to change the system without chucking IP protection completely out the window or creating a single strict set of laws for the whole world. The trick for all these groups is balancing the interests of everyone involved, including the points of view above.


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