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Rio, IGF, and getting IP right

About a year ago I attended the first Internet Governance Forum (IGF) meeting in Athens. It was a huge techie jamboree bringing together Internet experts and advocates from around the world. And as I sat there in the audience and listened to the different visions of the future presented from the podium, I recall being pretty stunned by the political focus of the whole thing.

Well, I’m happy to report that to a large extent this year’s IGF in Rio seems much less overtly political than last year’s meeting. The keynote delivered by a Brazilian Minister did start the meeting off on a strange note – he effectively called for the end of ICANN and its replacement with he-didn’t-say-what-exactly – but most of the sessions I’ve attended have kept the polemics manageable.

In Rio I’ve participated in a good session on how to increase the net’s linguistic diversity. I’ve heard some worthwhile discussion of approaches to increasing the participation of Emerging Markets voices in IGF discussions. I even attended one panel where NGOs and large firms talked – cooperatively, constructively – about how they could join forces to work on practical approaches to protecting human rights and privacy in cyberspace.

All of this stands in stark contrast to the sharpest critique I’ve heard in any of the sessions in Rio. It came not from the Cuban or Iranian delegates (as in Athens), but from a US lawyer who complained loudly of all things about the recent free trade agreements (FTAs) signed between the US and countries in Latin America and elsewhere. And, while I can’t speak to all provisions of the treaties (and it would be far above my pay-grade to say that I know better than the Presidents of a dozen or so nations who voluntarily chose to enter into these agreements), the argument did strike me as odd.

The panelist said, in essence, that the US government was forcing other countries to accept fairly strict Intellectual Property (IP) protections as part of these treaties. And that this was unfair.

It was unfair, if I understood correctly, because it helped enshrine US technical standards in Emerging Markets. It was unfair because it disadvantages local Emerging Markets tech developers and providers. It was unfair because it limits the independence and development opportunities of countries signing these accords. And since the opposite of protecting IP would, at least on some level, be not protecting IP (and accepting some level of IP piracy?), let me say that on all counts I beg to differ.

You can say what you want about the price of any good – from virus vaccines to virus scan programs. And it is true, not all firms – whether in the Yangtzee Valley, the Rhine Valley, or in Silicon Valley – play by the rules all the time in the ways we might want. Still, nothing in the FTAs that I’ve seen forces me to buy Guatemala’s coffee (even if it is some of the best in the world) or forces small businesses like mine in Guatemala to buy Adobe Photoshop, MSOffice or any other IP product from the US.

Moreover, if I walk out of the store without paying for my coffee – whether that store is in Guatemala or Washington – that’s called stealing. The medium or size of the firm providing the product doesn’t change the principle. The fact, for example, that it’s easier to copy my band’s CD than it is to grow coffee doesn’t make me any less deserving of reaping the rewards from my work if I wrote the songs. Nor does the size of the popularity of the band have anything to do with it. Britney Spears, as much as she makes me cringe, deserves the same rights we would insist on for the cool undiscovered indie group we hope will make the big time some day. It’s not hegemony to want to be paid for your work, no matter who you are. (Note: Thank you clients for sharing this belief!)

In fact, instead of limiting the options of economies, I would argue – as Rwandan President Kagame has over and over – that IP protection is crucial to development. I have heard many companies complain that the lack of confidence in contracts and in the security of their IP-based products – especially in Emerging Markets – limits their investments in these markets. It limits their local hiring, it limits the time spent developing products for these markets, it limits the taxes they pay in country. So if you want trade, and you want investment, doesn’t it just make sense to include IP protection in any trade accord?

There’s not a lot these days that I can say I agree with coming out of my government – either the White House or the Congress. However, in this case it seems we really do have it right. As a citizen and taxpayer, you bet I want to see the jobs, tax revenues and re-investment that flow to the US from music, movies, and software made in the US. And, as a friend of development I want to see it too, because I know that true integration into the “knowledge economy” is impossible without intellectual property.

I think its time we stopped intellectualizing about protecting the “developing world” in ways we wouldn’t think to protect ourselves. Charity is charity, but no Emerging Markets entrepreneur I’ve ever met would think of signing a contract that says they shouldn’t get paid for their work – whether their product is consulting time, a pound of coffee, or a DVD. Why should they? Why should we?

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