Over the past year, James Boyle has been fighting to expose the truth about how intellectual property law and policy is crafted: in the dark, with the only light provided by the glimmer of faith. There are no statistical economists running comparative studies to show how various levels of protection impact our social and economic well being. Instead, as Boyle points out in the Guardian Unlimited, we have law and policy based on "anecdotes, just-so stories, and celebrity testimony." If Jack Valenti or Cliff Richard says it, who are we to disbelieve?
Now Boyle has struck another blow against faith-based initiatives. He's gathered a group of artists, scientists, lawyers, politicians, economists, academics, and business experts to form the Adelphi Charter. This posse, which includes Gilberto Gil and Nobel Laureate Sir John Sulston, has developed a set of principles for vetting proposals for new copyrights and patents, and urges governments around the world to apply a new public interest test. The group also advocates what it calls a "new, fair, user-friendly and efficient way of handing out intellectual property rights in the 21st century." It hearkens back to the days of Thomas Jefferson, when, Boyle observes, "even the proponents of intellectual property saw it as a necessary evil, something to be limited to the narrowest scope and time necessary."
Quite the contrast to today's mad scramble to force through, oh, say, 50 years of fresh exclusive rights on top of existing copyrights with zero public discussion, debate, or scrutiny. Forget about statistical economists providing evidence that these new rights are necessary. We don't even get Jack or Cliff.
The charter is itself excellent reading, but there is also coverage at The Economist. Here's an excerpt that serves both as an introduction to the issues in the charter and an overiew of developments in the copyfight over the past few months:
[As] technologies like computers and the internet make the exchange of information easier than ever—and inventions become more conceptual—huge stress is being placed on today's intellectual-property laws, which trace their foundations to the birth of the printing industry and mechanical industrialisation.
Industries that rely on copyright and patent protection are increasingly turning to the law to protect their businesses. For example, music firms are suing thousands of people for swapping songs online and trying to stem the tide of counterfeit CDs. Google has also recently been sued by a trade association of authors to prevent it from placing book excerpts online. And Microsoft has recently reiterated its intention to patent a basic format for storing files—a move that could let the firm collect money from the IT industry for things that have been done cost-free for years. Meanwhile, the World Intellectual Property Organisation, a United Nations body, is pushing ahead with treaty negotiations that will create a new layer of rights for broadcasters, including on the web.
At the same time, new approaches aim to work around overly-restrictive rights, such as the open-source software movement and an effort called the Creative Commons, which makes it easy for creators to give away some of their copyrights under licence while retaining others to control how their works are reused.
The Adelphi Charter is clearly far from a complete answer to the dilemmas posed by intellectual-property rights in an era shaped by digital technology and the desire for as much innovation as possible. But it does aim at the right target by promoting the idea that—as Mr Boyle puts it—“good policy does not just consist of ‘more rights', it consists of maintaining a balance between the realm of property and the realm of the public domain”.
Update: The BBC also has coverage