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Of copies and rights

By Scott Bradner

The field of intellectual property rights has not been made easier by the advent of the Internet and of a world in which intellectual property (a different kind of IP then I normally talk about) is increasingly digital in nature. IP rules and concepts forged over hundreds of years of experience with physical objects are becoming increasingly out of sync with the possibilities and characteristics of the digital world. It may be time to rethink these rules.

The National Research Council (NRC), part of the National Academies in Washington DC 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 is good document.

The 18 member committee, working over a period of almost two years, looked at every aspect of these issues 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 can not hope to summarize the 337 page report in the less than 500 words that I'm allowed in this column but instead 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 to apply existing rules to the new technologies. Where the existing rules can not 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 and create new IP-related laws before we understand the implications of the technology.

Another conclusion was that IP rights holders should not automatically assume that the best way to ensure that they get their rightful return from their IP is to install content protection systems, like 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 re-think 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 other's fundamental concepts the above book report is my own.