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Guest Columnist: Downloading the Future: IP In the Digital Age

Earlier this summer I spoke to a group of young telecom professionals from around the world at the United States Telecommunications Training Institute (USTTI), in a meeting here inWashington, DC. I couldn’t have walked into a room with a better collection of today’s emerging telecom and technology stars, from the Philippines and India to Singapore, Nigeria and Sri Lanka. They work in TV, radio, and Government and have been a part of true telecoms revolutions in their respective markets.

My topic was “Intellectual Property in the Digital Age.” And if this sounds like weighty stuff, well I guess it is. When I first went into this process I was thinking that this was an abstract, almost academic talk. But through the discussion, what I realized was just how much it could mean to Emerging Markets like the ones my group represented.

Now, let me say off the bat that I am not a complete authority on IP law. This was actually the first time presenting to this kind of audience. Naturally, I was eager to engage in conversation and debate with these professionals, because I am more convinced than ever that IP must be protected if Emerging Markets are to develop their own knowledge-based industries like software development. But, I didn’t always think of IP in this way.

Flashback to 1999….

Like many of you reading this blog, I was in college in 1999, the year Napster was born. I definitely remember when I met Napster in a college dorm room in Amherst, Massachusetts. “Really, an unlimited library of music at your fingertips? How could I pass this up?” I didn’t. The chance to have access to that much cool music was enough to make any poor college student salivate. After all, who wouldn’t want to OWN all those tracks? And so I built a top-notch collection: Coltrane, Dylan, Mingus… As fate would have it, my computer crashed at the end of the semester. My “borrowed” music emporium was lost.

Fast-forward to 2007….

Since college I’ve traveled a bit more, and visited places where people live on $1 a day, where everyday life can be a struggle. In these cities and countries I have met with young entrepreneurs who write, produce and market their music, art, film and books. I met and heard people with things to say and beautiful music to offer, people who might some day be the Coltrane, Dylan or Mingus of a place like Sierra Leone – if they get the recognition. I have heard their voices and I want the world to hear them, too. I now see a closer connection between their work, their genius, and my respect for Intellectual Property. Needless to say, I now pay $0.99 for my music on iTunes.

So, back to the USTTI presentation. After introducing myself, I asked the group, “What is copyright infringement?” Hands shot up without hesitation and a gentleman from the Philippines said, “Harry Potter came out in the United StatesJuly 11th, but it was being sold on the street in Manila on July 10th.” A perfect example. Unfortunately, far too many people around the world don’t see a problem with ripping a copy of Harry Potter, and posting it online for millions to download. Of course, it’s hard to argue that this will put JK Rowling out of business, but our little group in Washingtondid understand. They realized that it’s about more tha n one song. They realized that safeguarding development means protecting what they produce in the digital marketplace. In a very real sense, what’s at stake is the digital future of their country.

Similar to what I’ve found during my interactions and work with African and US youth, these rising professionals are not legacy-focused. Many of them are using social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace to interact and share ideas with friends in country and around the world. Many of them are blogging and creating new material and content on topics ranging from politics to sports to technology. Like me, they believe in the power of all things digital and are seeking out new digital platforms to build broader audiences.

And, while there are many new avenues to promote and gather information, but this also creates new challenges. From broadcasters to content providers, to technology pioneers and Government, it’s increasingly difficult to protect IP. Even if you aren’t a policy maker or broadcaster this does affect you. After all, at the end of the day we’re all consumers and quality matters.

You may be thinking, “So what? I’m still going to sign into a File Sharing P2P, because film and recording studios are raking in the dough…”, but hear me out. Now, maybe it was the fact that I was reading “The Wizard of Menlo Park” (about Thomas Edison) at the time of the presentation, but in our session in Washington I truly felt for the attendees. I heard their stories of how hard they work to hatch new content, and how they receive little compensation and recognition for their work. They want to be digital entrepreneurs and yet so many of them felt almost duped, since the laws that could protect their IP are simply not in place or enforced.

And so I thought… WWTED (What Would Thomas Edison Do?) What would Edison do if he were alive and living in Bangalore or Abuja? My guess is that as a creator, he’d be the first one banging the drum for IP protection, building partnerships in the public and private sectors for copyright and trademark laws. Imagine the world without light bulbs, or cell phones. So, yes, this is what I think it takes… building a network of pioneers of different ages, and from many sectors who can raise awareness, influence policy-makers and encourage creativity and innovation in Emerging Markets. This means collaboration between business, Government and consumers. Not just those in tech, but the young people who are filmmakers in Cameroon and artists in Uganda whose livelihood depends on selling original works that have taken months and years to complete.

It all comes back to Edison; is there an African Edison? Of course there is and I bet his light-bulb is glowing. But, without assurance that his work will be protected, his inventions may never get the attention they deserve, or the finance to go to scale. Without IP protection he’ll never be able to reap the benefits of his creation, and he’ll remain in the lab. Without IP protection, you and I miss will out.

IP protection made Edison’s vision a reality, and we’re all the richer for his brilliance. Without IP protection, we might all still be stuck in the dark.

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