Shoring uncertain times (12 January 2009)

The conference is in the main auditorium of the Carnegie Institution of Science. Solemn, with an overview of Science whose background is a map of the US projected on 3 of the auditorium walls. The inscriptions are glorious hymns to natural religion, where science is described as the quest for understanding and illustrating the beauty of God’s works. Participants distributed on part of the 400 seats. The NGOs and academics or thinkers who conduct the trans-Atlantic consumer dialogue (also including NGOs from developing countries) are in majority. Quite a few loobyists who are there to know what we are up to. A few members of the future Obama team, and a few others who still hope to be in it. A few friends tell me that’s a waste of time because there is nobody to listen to what we have to say. but I don’t think so. We are taking date. Everything we don’t say will be held against us. Too bad we did not search in the 85,000 Internet users contributions to the transition team those that address our subjects of interest. If I have time…

Everything is interesting, but the day’s key attraction is the session on patents and innovation where Joseph Stiglitz and Eric Maskin (two recent “Nobel” prizes in economic science) each do a 40 minutes talk. Stiglitz develops a general criticism of the extension of property-like mechanisms in policies, in particular at the international level. I don’t disagree with anything, and, of course, this criticism has a specific momentum in the context of the economic crisis. But there is not much that helps us identifying the levers on which we can push to change the situation. I am impatient to hear Eric Maskin, whose work with Jim Bessen was so important in the debates on software patents. I am not disapppointed. I know his analysis, but it’s another story to watch him presenting it to an audience where many are not specialists. What a feast. He uses transparencies, and takes the challenge of pedagocially presenting a simplified model that enabled him to prove that patents are inadequate for domains where innovation is sequential (proceeds by successive steps) and complementary (at each step several different solutions are possible and are explored by different players). The more he advances in the demonstration, the more there are scribblings on the transparencies. One can read his brave will to be understood, his desire to simplify without ever losing rigor. When he is about to speak, he first tells it in silence by moving his arms. The listener tries to guess and jumps in advance in his thinking. +1.

For what presently mobilizes me, the key session is the one on copyright. Fred Löhmann of the Electronic Frontier Foundation speaks in it. He was one of the first to propose blanket collective licensing as a means to legalize peer-to-peer exchanges for music (with details very similar to the later French proposal of 2005). His arguments to keep searching the path to a legalization of non-market sharing are lively and convincing. I feel frustrated that an English version of my Internet & Creation book (or at least a synthesis in English) is not yet available to fuel the debates here. They have taken a new dimension with the Warner Music Group’s proposals for a collective licensing for P2P to universities. I try to read the reactions of the new responsible person for copyright at the Library of Congress (her job includes a policy responsibility on these issues). One can’t guess, but she is definitely more open-minded that our French president in his new year speech to the cultural players (jump to the end).

Small friction between those who rejoice in the decision of the World Intellectual Property Organization to start working on minimal exceptions and limitations by preparing a treaty on exceptions for the blind and visually impaired, and those who regret that this work is presently restricted to these exceptions when many others are necessary. This is an ecosystemic non-issue. Explanation: both are right, and the movement for user rights is only made stronger by the presence of both views.

We are mentally exhausted at the end of the day. The good Californian wines are welcome.

This post is also available in: French

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