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Panpa Bulletin : August 2006
22 | PANPA bULLETIN august 2006 It is very difficult to get people interested in the topic of intellectual prop- erty (IP). And lawyers have a lot to answer for. They have managed IP in the past and it has been a dense, dark and dry-as-dust area. It also pro- duces bad vibes among those who work in education (how much can I copy -- who owns what?) and in journalism and the arts (how can I protect my work from pirates?). But this isn't what IP is all about today. It's less about the fear of getting it wrong and more about the exhilaration of getting it right. For there is a new IP regime in place and it is based on trade. Our attitude to intellectual property is much less concerned with the intellectual (grand ideas/eru- dite theories) and much more focused on the property (who owns what and how much is it worth?). And this is the new wealth. This is why in the 21st cen- tury, IP is no longer a boring topic. There is too much money in it. IP has become as exciting as stock market rates and real estate prices. It prob- ably plays an even bigger part in most people's lives -- but unfortunately in Australia we know so little about it (which is one reason Australia blithely signed the US Free Trade Agreement -- where an increas- ing number of commentators insisted we exchanged our IP -- for a lamb chop!). Since the 1970s, America has had a national taskforce on IP. It has had national IP policies that reflect American interests. And it has had a load of lobbyists flitting round the globe with carrots and sticks, powerfully persuading the rest of the world to sign up to the US system (commonly known as TRIPS). No wonder eco- nomics columnist Ross Gittins says -- buyer beware. Australia still doesn't have a national IP policy that addresses these issues. Under the guise of Free Trade, American corporations have been able to set up their international monopolies, and control markets and prices. They are increasingly taking over what has been public information for private (US) profit. The citizens of India certainly understand this. For thousands of years they have used the marvellous properties of the Neem Tree for medicinal and agricultural purposes. But one day (post TRIPS) the population woke uptofindthatWRGrace&Co had been awarded a patent in the US for the Neem Tree and that anyone who continued to process products from it would be sued. The Indians called this US bio-piracy. They protested -- in their millions. The same thing happened to turmeric, basmati rice, and seeds. Once US patents for Indian seeds were awarded to multination- als, farmers who continued to plant their own crops were seen to be stealing the seeds. No wonder the average In- dian knows a great deal more about IP than the average Aus- tralian. Most of us are still at the stage where we think that 'piracy' is what we supposedly steal from the US, rather than the way the trade treaties have been engineered by US corpo- rations to take advantage of the rest of the world. Just think copyright and Mickey Mouse laws and what it means for our daily life. These days the Disney Cor- poration owns Mickey Mouse and every time he gets close to coming out of copyright, the company lobbies (suc- cessfully) to have the period of protection extended, most recently to 70 years after the death of the author. Of course the company argues that it operates from the most noble of principles: rewarding the author for effort and creativity. But Walt's been dead for years. He won't get a cent of it. Australia however, signed up to harmonise their laws with those of the US. Yet Disney's argument that they want a fair reward for the author is as much a con trick as the presentation of TRIPS as a free trade agreement. Walt himself copied most of his material; this is how crea- tivity works -- by leaps from the known to the new. But Disney, which currently values its own brand as worth $53 billion according to its own calcula- tions, has effectively created a trading regime where Walt would not have been able to produce Snow White, Pinoc- chio, Alice in Wonderland, Cinderella, Robin Hood, Peter Pan, Sleeping Beauty etc, but where the company rakes in the profits. This is worth thinking about. The more information -- like Mickey Mouse -- that gets locked up, the less there is available for writers, artists, journalists and the educa- tion sector to use and learn from. Without permission or payment. Of course people should be paid for their ideas if they are in demand. This is how most of us now earn our living. (70 per cent of Australians make something at the workplace that you can't drop on your foot). But we will be no more creative than Walt Disney could be today, if we continue to think the solution is to lock it up. It is such a cruel irony that in the information age when as a nation we need to produce so much more information to trade, so much of it is unavail- able. When it comes to the new wealth, we are still waiting for the politicians to catch up. dr dale Spender is chief executive of digital Style and is a consultant to corporations, universities, tafe and schools in educational futures. Most of us are still at the stage where we think that ‘piracy’ is what we supposedly steal from the US, rather than the way the trade treaties have been engineered by US corporations to take advantage of the rest of the world. Have you paid for that idea? Intellectual Property has become sexy and can be a make or break issue for anyone who works in ideas writes Dr Dale Spender Of course people should be paid for their ideas if they are in demand. This is how most of us now earn our living.