August 22, 2003  ·  Lessig

The thread about Ms. Boland’s (mis)characterization of open-source software (remember the days when statements were either true or false?) reminded me of an odd fight I found myself in the middle of at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Geneva in February.

I was asked to give one of three keynotes launching the second preparatory conference. At a press conference before the keynote, a reporter asked what I was going to talk about. I indicated vaguely I would discuss the importance of the public domain to innovation, etc. (same old boring stuff). But I was then astonished when the moderator of the event, Maria CATTAUI, Secretary-General of the International Chamber of Commerce, scolded me that issues of “intellectual property” were not to be discussed because they were “exclusively” the concern of WIPO.

I promptly threw away the talk I had intended to give, and gave a completely different talk about how — Ms. Cattaui’s scolding notwithstanding — it was crucial that a summit on the world “information society” consider the role of the public domain in spreading knowledge and culture even if WIPO claimed exclusive jurisdiction of the matter. That assured I won’t be invited back to WSIS anytime soon (or at least by Ms. Cattaui).

It is therefore extraordinary now that people purporting to speak for WIPO would say that WIPO too is not to consider issues about the public domain. Neither at WIPO, nor at WSIS, nor apparently anywhere. Except among us commies I guess. (Fellow travelers, for our next secret communist meeting, be sure to read the latest great work by some of the most prominent IP commies out there. Linked here.)

  • Robert Morris

    I think it is a measure of the level of anxiety we all feel around the subject of IP. Clearly, we are approaching a cusp. The old models aren’t holding up well when every device is a printing press – and soon to be a factory! Who in their right mind would _want_ to take ownership of sorting these issues out? Even Mr. Lessig (and I’m quite the fan) has only partial solutions that require massive restructuring of the legal and political landscape to effect. If the utopian vision isn’t clear, the day-to-day decision making is much murkier. Let us not be too harsh on those upon whom this burden falls.

  • Christian Schaller

    The saddest part here is that if this is they way the world is moving in regards to how things are governed then it becomes next to impossible to present a coherent argument in complex issues in international fora. Because if the topic cross over the fields of interest of multiple organizations, and you would only be allowd to argue the case of a subsection of the whole each place, and judgeing by Lessig’s example be strictly limited in the context you are allowed to present, you might not really be able to present anything of use as arguments tend to fail when taken out of context.

  • Tripp Hudgins

    I think that the idea that IP is an issue relegated to its own context (whatever that is) is useless. It is like Freshman Physics. “This Law only works in a vacuum.” The issues surrounding intellectual property must be public…shared by all. It is an interesting irony, really. There is nothing private about IP law/regulation. It cannot work that way. It must be public or else it is useless.

    Now, I think that most of our IP law is hooey, but I’m just a musician and a student. What do I know of intellectual property…or spelling to be honest.


  • Claude Almansi

    May be there is hope for public domain in a WSIS Special Event, it not in WSIS itself, : The role of science in information society , to be hosted by CERN on Dec 8-9 (i.e. just before the “official” WSIS).

    RSIS organizers have their act together, a program, a goal a properly working website, which is refreshing, and a great declaration : .

    Tim Berners-Lee will speak on The Essence of the Web:
    “Essential to the Web is its universality: its independence of specific network, hardware and software, and of national culture, language, and disability. Both social and technological challenges remain to be met if the Information Society is to reach its full potential.”

    [Sure, the unavoidable Ms Cattaui and Mr Furrer (OFCOM, an inefficient Swiss version of US NTIA) will be there too, but they won't be on their turf. ]

    What about making The role of science in information society the MAIN event? There’s a logistic problem in 3D, sure, but the organizers have also foreseen and already launched online forums: . Let’s use them.


    Claude Almansi

  • Timothy Phillips

    This National Post article not a masterpiece, or even a solid journeywork, but it is a competent apprentice piece in the art of guile.

  • Kaa

    Just don’t think of WIPO, ICC, etc. as if they were impartial benefactors of mankind. Think of them as organized groups for protecting and promoting certain interests and things will become much clearer :-)

    As to commies, isn’t the US government the biggest contributor to the public domain? OMG, the communists have taken over!!!

  • Tom Poe

    “The old models aren�t holding up well when every device is a printing press – and soon to be a factory! Who in their right mind would _want_ to take ownership of sorting these issues out? Even Mr. Lessig (and I�m quite the fan) has only partial solutions that require massive restructuring of the legal and political landscape to effect.” Robert Morris [see above comments].

    I was going to comment of the comments of Mr. Lessig, but this quote above has distracted me. I totally agree that we have truly entered the Digital Age, where empowerment of the people has evolved to empowerment of the individual. However, with the creation of the Creative Commons Project, no massive restructuring of the legal and political landscape is necessary. We now have a choice of lifestyles, opting to follow reason, or to follow special interest goals. Those companies that wish to continue old business models will lose customers. Those people who prefer reasonable licensing criteria will be able to migrate to products that offer them. This way of thinking about IP should become clearer and easier to deal with. Massive restructuring of the legal and political landscape can be left to the neocons/neoclassicists that eventually find themselves out of work.

  • Rob

    The centrality of a critical analysis of Intellectual Property Rights, as demanded by Lessig, was firmly rejected by Maria Cattaui from the International Chamber of Commerce. Her vision was business-oriented. She called the private sector �the real implementer of information society, and the true creator and innovator of information services.� No one else, according to Cattaui, has the skills, experience and creativity to create the foundations of information society.

    So it wasn’t Al Gore who invented the Internet, it was the “private sector” i.e. Microsoft and other large corporations. I’m sure this comes as news to Tim Berners-Lee and Vinton Cerf, who were not private-sector employees when they made their inventions.

    Really, is this revisionist history so surprising? How many times do they have to hit you over the head with it- unless it generates revenue, it doesn’t really signify. It’s not “really implemented” until you have to pay for it. Yes, they do see us as “commies,” and foolish ones at that, clinging to our quaint notions of a public domain with all the lost revenue opportunities it represents.

    Don’t ever think that a capitalist society necessarily implies a free society. Those who accumulate the capital are as likely to try to hold on to it as to reinvest it, and they will use their power and influence to get laws arranged to maximize the amount they can hold on to. WIPO is just the tool of big business interests trying to extend the property rights they hold domestically to the international arena. Prof. Lessig really walked into the lion’s den.