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'Net Insider:

Of Copies and Rights
By Scott Bradner
Network World, 02/07/00            

The field of intellectual property rights has not been made any easier by the advent of the Internet and of a world in which intellectual property (a different kind of IP than what I usually talk about) is increasingly digital in nature.

Intellectual property rules and concepts developed through hundreds of years of experience, with physical objects becoming increasingly out of sync with the possibilities and characteristics of the digital world. It may be time to rethink the rules.

The National Research Council (NRC), part of the National Academies in Washington D.C., assembles groups of people, usually with quite diverse points of view, to study problems deemed important by various parts of the U.S. government and others. The NRC has just published a report called "The Digital Dilemma: Intellectual Property in the Information Age" (ISBN 0-309-06499-6 and on the Web at from one of these study committees. I may be just a bit biased, since I was a member of the committee that produced this new report, but I think it's a good document.

The 18-member committee, working over a period of almost two years, looked at every aspect of IP we could think of. We found divergent, passionate, yet reasoned views on just about every aspect of the subject - both from those the committee asked to address us, or to review the draft of the report, and within the committee itself. I cannot hope to summarize the 337-page report in the less than 500 words that I'm allowed in this column, so instead I will focus on three points.

Historically, the IP community's response to new technology has been to try to fit the technology into existing IP paradigms and apply existing rules to the new technologies. Where the existing rules cannot be made to cover the new technologies, the reaction has been to establish new rules, using the old logic, to cover the particular new technology. One of the committee's major conclusions was that there should be no rush to try to create new IP-related laws before we understand the implications of the technology.

Another conclusion was that IP rights holders should not automatically assume the best way to ensure that they get their rightful return from their IP is to install content protection systems, as the DVD community has. The IP rights holders should investigate other options to see if new business models may do as effective a job at a lower cost.

A third point is really more of a question: Is "copy" still the right fundamental concept? Computer and network systems make many temporary copies of data in their normal processes. Might it be a good time to rethink just what it is that constitutes IP rights? For example, the concept could be that the IP rights holder deserves returns when someone views the IP.

Disclaimer: Although Harvard is good at rethinking others' fundamental concepts, the above book report is my own.

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