August 22, 2003 · Lessig
I don’t even know how to begin this story, so stupid and extreme it is.
The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) was convinced by Jamie Love and others to hold a meeting about “open collaborative models to develop public goods.” One of those models is, of course, open source and free software. Lobbyists for Microsoft and others apparently (according to this extraordinary story by Jonathan Krim) started lobbying the US government to get the meeting cancelled. No surprise there. Open source and free software is a competitor to MSFT’s products. Lobbying is increasingly the way competition is waged in America.
But the astonishing part is the justification for the US opposing the meeting. According to the Post, Lois Boland, director of international relations for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, said “that open-source software runs counter to the mission of WIPO, which is to promote intellectual-property rights.” As she is quoted as saying, “To hold a meeting which has as its purpose to disclaim or waive such rights seems to us to be contrary to the goals of WIPO.”
If Lois Boland said this, then she should be asked to resign. The level of ignorance built into that statement is astonishing, and the idea that a government official of her level would be so ignorant is an embarrassment. First, and most obviously, open-source software is based in intellectual-property rights. It can’t exist (and free software can’t have its effect) without it. Second, the goal of WIPO, and the goal of any government, should be to promote the right balance of intellectual-property rights, not simply to promote intellectual property rights. And finally, if an intellectual property right holder wants to “disclaim” or “waive” her rights, what business is it of WIPOs? Why should WIPO oppose a copyright or patent rights holder’s choice to do with his or her rights what he or she wants?
These points are basic. They should be fundamental. That someone who doesn’t understand them is at a high level of this government just shows how extreme IP policy in America has become.