Innovation and IGF – Lessons from Purple Rain

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I never meant to cause you any trouble,
I never meant to cause you any pain

The opening lines of Purple Rain serve to sum up the challenges faced by innovative SMEs around the world, seeking to protect their investments with IP. At the Internet Governance Forum, no one means to cause them any pain…but they do. There is a widespread campaign by some, primarily in the OSS community (but they are not alone) to devalue and trivialize intellectual property around the world and SMEs have the most to lose. This campaign has many faces including debates surrounding so-called Open Standards, development, accessibility and blatant preferences for open source software. There are legitimate issues to be addressed in each of these topic areas, but the overreaching tendency is to minimize the value of IP. Truthfully, large companies with their thousands of patents and cross licenses have far less to fear from this devaluation. It is smaller companies with their one or two patents, central to their entire business, that stand to lose the most.

You might rightfully ask, what does all this have to do with the Internet Governance Forum. The answer is that the IGF has increasingly become a minefield of unintended consequences for small innovators. The IGF has become a critical venue where governments, NGOs and business get together to discuss the internet. There is really no other forum like it where posturing is at a practical minimum, discussions are open and frank, and everyone that wants to be is at the table. Changing the IGF, even just a little, would most likely undermine these rather unique positive, and frankly essential, characteristics. None of this means there are no dangers about which to be vigilant.

In open standards discussions, the definition of “open” seems to be creeping towards “implementable via the GPL,” a license that was created specifically to be at odds with IP. There are plenty of open source licenses which are compatible with IP and we need to make sure that OSS does not necessarily mean only the GPL. Anyone can choose the GPL as their license, particularly if he or she is trying to build a community around their software project, but there should be no entitlement that the world will always accommodate it. There are positives and negatives to selecting the GPL as your software license and everyone should go in with their eyes open. If SMEs are going to be involved in the standards process and allow their IP to be part of the process, there have to be ways to protect it, such as field of use restrictions, even in a royalty-free implementation of a standard. There might be instances where implementations of standards need to be developed under another GPL-compatible license so that those rights can be preserved. It happens all the time today and the world has not ended.

In the context of development and accessibility, we need to strike a balance between innovation and means-based cost management. Up-front costs cannot be the only driver for governments or the disabled community or they will not get the innovation they so desperately need. My father, who is both seeing and hearing impaired has benefited greatly from his Kindle and his hearing aid, both of which are based on IP for which innovators are compensated and this cannot be any different in software. In fact the core technology of the Kindle came from one of our members, Mobipocket, and existed only as software before it was integrated into a hardware device.

These messages are not new but I suppose the IGF is a new forum in which they are debated and we need to stay on top of those debates. More people from the innovation community need to get involved in the IGF and drive an innovation message for both governments around the world as well as the disabled community. If that message isn’t delivered, short-sighted concerns about up-front costs will significantly hamper innovation in their spaces.

The IGF is an incredible and unique forum in which everyone can be at the table. But as with any big family, no one is hoping you will go hungry but if you are not at the table, there is nothing stopping someone else from eating your lunch.