The Digital Dilemma: Intellectual Property in the Information Age

Research-Technology Management, March/April 2000 | Go to article overview

The Digital Dilemma: Intellectual Property in the Information Age


The Digital Dilemma: Intellectual Property in the Information Age,

Committee on Intellectual Property Rights and the Emerging Information Infrastructure;

Available from National Academy Press,

2101 Constitution Ave., NW.

Washington, DC 20055;

Tel. (800) 624-6242.

Novel business models and new technologies to protect intellectual property, as well as education in copyright law, are all likely to be far more effective mechanisms than major legislative changes for protecting electronic information at this time, says this report from a committee of the National Research Council of the National Academies of Sciences and Engineering. These methods should be used to complement existing copyright laws that protect owners and distributors of digital information while maximizing access and use by the public. Digital intellectual property is fundamental to the growth of electronic commerce, and the way it is handled has broad implications.

Legislators should delay any overhauling of intellectual property laws and public policy until markets have bad ample time to adjust to new models of doing business and until sufficient research on the issues is conducted, the report says. To help legislators formulate or revise laws and policies in the future, the committee articulated a set of broad, guiding principles that offer advice about creating laws in a period of rapid technological change.

"Information has increasingly become an event to be experienced, rather than an artifact to be kept," said committee chair Randall Davis, professor of computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "The question of how to control distribution and use of digital information is much more than a legal issue alone. Law, business, and technology all interact, hence approaching the problem from a single viewpoint will be inadequate. Many stakeholders are affected; anyone with an interest in le-commerce' will feel the consequences of the decisions made on this topic. A broad framework is needed to address all aspects of the public and private interest and to ensure the future vitality of the internet economy."

The ease of distributing and altering digital information, and the proliferation of computer networking, raise concerns about copyright and patenting-protections rooted in the U.S. Constitution. The committee concluded that technology must be viewed as only part of the picture and not the driving force for new laws and policies. The focus should be on the underlying issues that influence market behavior, such as consumer attitudes regarding digital information and new opportunities to generate, distribute, and profit from it.

For example, the basic concept of publication should be re-evaluated and clarified, the report says, in part because the information infrastructure--computer networks and the World Wide Web-has changed what is meant by "publishing." In the physical world, publication has three important characteristics: it is public, irrevocable, and provides a fixed copy of the work. In the digital world, none of these may be true. For instance, software can be designed to restrict public access to digital information, and old information is routinely overwritten with new. …

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