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An IP System Fit for the 21st Century

Last week, I attended a breakfast meeting at the House of Commons to discuss and reflect on practical issues around implementing recommendations of the Hargreaves Report, as well as ways in which the IP system can be evolved to better enable the benefits from 21st Century business and technology opportunities.

UK House of Parliament

UK House of Parliament

This event, organised by the Industry and Parliament Trust, featured brief talks by Professor Ian Hargreaves (author of the IP Review report & recommendations – download it here), Ben White (Head of IP at the British Library), and Nico Perez (co-founder of startup, MixCloud), plus Q&A style discussions with the attending group of politicians and business people from relevant industries. Some key observations and comments are:

  • London has the largest cluster of IP related start-ups, as well as the biggest hub for VCs, in Europe
  • There has been a lot of international interest in the Hargreaves report and recommendations (the good professor regularly gets calls from interested observers across the globe). Also, the review findings and recommendations had good traction with the UK government.
  • Digital economy versus creative economy; are they one and the same (i.e. is there and/or should there really be a difference)?
  • The larger creative industry players (e.g. publishers), and their lobbyists, are not in full agreement with the review findings and / or recommendations, and remain firmly resistant to change
  • According to one attendee, the interests of creative stakeholder (e.g. content creators) were not well represented or served by the review findings and recommendations
  • Collecting societies act like de facto monopolies, which can make life difficult for some more innovative start-ups
  • Broadcast TV players are trying to innovate and catch up with what consumers are already doing in their homes, but the current IP system is not sufficiently geared towards enabling such initiatives.

Note: Further information, comments and observations can be found in the IPT blog post about this event.

The upshot of the above points, in my opinion, is that a new / evolved IP system must really be geared towards dual targets, i.e. to help simplify and facilitate the use and reuse of IP works, especially in the digital realm. Such a focus would undoubtedly go a long way towards addressing the legion of non-technological challenges faced by most innovators, entrepreneurs and investors in the creative digital industries. For example, according to an article (see: The Library of Utopia), published by MIT technology review, “the major problem with constructing a universal library nowadays has little to do with technology. It’s the thorny tangle of legal, commercial, and political issues that surrounds the publishing business.”

These are pretty much the same issues to be found in similar ventures within publishing and other major creative industries, e.g.: Music (think cross border licensing for the much vaunted Celestial Jukebox), or a global film and image library (e.g. a mash-up of Hulu, Netflix, Corbis and Getty Images). In all cases, technology is not the stumbling block, because the bigger challenges lie with any combination of: business strategy, commercial models, legal / political / cultural mindsets, encountered along the way.

Having said that, it can be argued that such hurdles are not sustainable, for various reasons, not least of which is that individuals (or customers, casual pirates, consumers, freetards etc. – take your pick) are already way ahead of the curve in terms of digital content / technology, and will often use it exactly as they see fit.

This means that established incumbent players in the creative industries are forever playing a reactive / catch-up game, instead of pursuing or encouraging discovery of the next big thing. As a result, most disruptive propositions will invariably have a high impact on established business models, especially if and when they harness the natural instincts of individual users. An interesting example could be the recently launched Google Drive, complete with built-in OCR capability (which will enable users to digitize and search scanned content). Could this ultimately lead to a user generated version of Google Books?

To conclude, an IP system worthy of the 21st century is an urgent necessity, but there is also pressing need to keep in mind the big picture, which is that the Internet is a global enabler / platform, therefore any new IP system must likewise be global in scope. The UK, with its wealth of creative talent, plus such efforts as the IP review and recommendations, may be in a unique position to provide some leadership on the best way forward for IP in this 21st century.

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