Sunday, April 25, 2010

InnovationACT IP Panel Discussion


It was interesting to attend a seminar on Intellectual Property (IP) protectionism at ANU on Thursday night.
Tomorrow night’s seminar (21 April 2010) is another discussion panel. Guest speakers will discuss the importance and value of intellectual property, along with key strategies to protect and exploit this valuable (yet poorly understood) asset.
The format was exactly the same as seminars I've attended on the apparently opposite end of the spectrum - IP sharing. You have the legal person (usually a lawyer) setting the scene with a slide presentation, then its over to a small panel made up of an industry peak body representative and a token artist for good measure (no offense to the people in the panel of this and any other session - its a comment on the format). The obvious message this format sends is: Intellectual Property is about the rule of law, it is a logical system based on the business of money, and that its good for most if not all - even lefty artists. I never questioned this format until now - seeing it from the protectionist side was quite the eye opener.

But despite the authoritative tone, the panel was unable to represent the spectrum of issues around the notion of IP. Their bias came through from the legal person who makes a living from protectionism, right through the panel and the organisers and their supporters, who's interests where clearly focused on protecting and commercialising IP at the universities.

To be fair, the event was part of a series aimed at supporting networking opportunities and innovation and business development for students and staff at both universities. It seems to be well organised, well attended, and well supported - free drinks and food to boot! A seminar on IP in this context is bound to focus on protectionism and commercialisation.

My concerns revolve around:
  1. Where that protectionism and commercialisation perspective operates in publicly funded universities
  2. That the mechanics, economics and benefits of IP sharing don't get a mention in that context
  3. The mistaken belief in the panel and their organisers, that shared IP cannot be protected and commercialised
I attended the panel because I have an interest in the culture surrounding the notion of IP in Canberra - especially the University sector, and because a key person in the University of Canberra's IP Policy writing area was attending and offering himself for advice to attendees.

Questions and challenges

After the presentation from the patent attorney the session moved over to question time. I was encouraged by someone in the audience asking about the role Creative Commons had in all of it, but dismayed by the general responses from the panel. So I felt obliged to challenge further.

I asked 2 questions:
If someones legal claim to IP is offended by someone internationally, how do they practically enforce their legal rights? What are the steps they must take, how much might it cost?
The answer was given as a joke from the industry representative.
You take a big pipe and connect one end to your bank account, and the other to a lawyers bank account, and just let it flow.
Using this not-too-inaccurate answer, I commented that for most of us in the room therefore, protecting IP is probably not economically viable, and we might wish to consider other approaches. There was some agreement from the panel on that, with advice being to consider the cost benefits of IP protectionism, including your ability to pursue and defend legal challenges, but no real advice on the alternatives was forthcoming.

My second question was more complicated and required a scenario:
I am a scientist working on a biomass heat transfer unit in a publicly funded university. I have hit a technical problem that could probably be quickly answered if I put the designs out there for a wider network to see and contribute to. Trouble is, a unit in the University called the IP Commercialisation Unit wants me to maintain confidentiality on the work, and a private investment is conditional on IP protectionism. There is a large public grant I could go for, but it requires open sharing of IP.
The patent attorney responded by putting my question into two perspectives: you either work for the public good, or you work for commercial gain.

I refuted this assertion, and proposed Creative Commons Share Alike might be a way to bring commercial and public interest together in such situations. I added a comment that the scenario I put forward, others like it, and my previous question on enforceability, should be carefully considered by those responsible for IP policies in publicly funded universities, and that alternative approaches to managing notions of IP be included as a resourced and supported option for university staff and students.

The seminar was organised by Innovation ACT - a student organised initiative. Their opening line on their about page reads:
Whether you define success by profit or by social good, every budding entrepreneur needs access to solid advice, mentoring, start-up skills and funding.
I would like to thank the panel for putting themselves up there, and Innovation ACT for hosting a quality event. A video recording was made of the session, and I hope it can be published under a Creative Commons Attribution license.

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