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February 25, 2005
James Boyle: Public Information Wants to Be Free
James Boyle has done it again. Last time, Boyle had the temerity to suggest that intellectual property policy ought to be judged by its performance. Yes, that's right -- not on the theory that it spurs the "progress of science and useful arts," but rather, on whether a specific protection actually does the job. This time, Boyle continues the theme, giving us a surprising fr'instance:
Take weather data. The United States makes complete weather data available to anyone at the cost of reproduction. If the superb government websites and data feeds aren't enough, for the price of a box of blank DVDs you can have the entire history of weather records across the continental US. European countries, by contrast, typically claim government copyright over weather data and often require the payment of substantial fees. Which approach is better?
...Weiss suggests that the US approach generates far more social wealth. True, the information is initially provided for free, but a thriving private weather industry has sprung up which takes the publicly funded data as its raw material and then adds value to it. The US weather risk management industry, for example, is ten times bigger than the European one, employing more people, producing more valuable products, generating more social wealth. ...Other studies suggest similar patterns in areas ranging from geo-spatial data to traffic patterns and agriculture. "Free" information flow is better at priming the pump of economic activity.
Boyle goes on to point out that "[some] readers may not thrill to this way of looking at things because it smacks of private corporations getting a 'free ride' on the public purse - social wealth be damned. But the benefits of open data policies go further."
How far? Boyle explains that this year, one set of monsoon rains alone killed 660 people in India and left 4.5 million homeless. So researchers have been seeking complete weather records to generate a model based on global weather patterns. The US data was relatively cheap and easily available; the European data was not. "In the wake of the outpouring of sympathy for the tsunami victims in the same region, this example seems somehow even more tragic," writes Boyle. "Will the pattern be repeated with seismographic, cartographic and satellite data? One hopes not."
This is one reason why I've been harping on the importance of the Development Agenda for WIPO. Maximal intellectual property protection doesn't always equal maximal economic benefit. It certainly doesn't always equal maximal social benefit. The Development Agenda gives the world's most influential IP organization the opportunity to pull away from this radical stance, allowing us to create IP policy that does its job -- providing the protection where it is needed for optimal economic growth -- while retaining our human values.
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