It's an unfortunate byproduct of the democratic process that when the gains of a particular policy are centered on a limited number of individuals and corporations while the losses are spread thinly across many people, the policy tends to be enacted even when the total losses are greater than the gains. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, and the few winners find it in their interest to squeak the loudest. Without concerted efforts to organize the interests of the public, efforts such as the AARP or the National Audubon Society, the public interest can be lost in a sea of special interests.
The current state of IP law should be of particular concern to the open source community. Though the effects of software patents have not yet made a significant impact on the open source community, at least not directly, they remain the monster in the closet waiting to pounce when the open source community falls asleep. David Alpert, the president of IPac, recently said in an email interview with NewsForge that the time is near when "open source software will not be able to thrive in an environment where anyone who creates software has to get permission from, and often pay licensing fees to, powerful entrenched industries."
Yet the biggest threat in IP law to the open source community isn't one particular bill, case, or patent. Instead, says Alpert, it is "the inability thus far of the open source community to wield its political influence." If it is to have its voice represented and respected in Washington, the open source community needs to act, and act quickly.
The guiding principles of IPac are straightforward:
1. Creators of ideas and inventions have the right to be compensated for their work, but not to limit political expression, veto technological innovation, or restrict education and scientific research.
2. Intellectual property laws should be judged by their potential to foster new creativity, as required by the U.S. Constitution. (Section 8, clause 8 of the Constitution gives Congress the power "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries."
3. Intellectual property laws should be clear and explicit, so anybody can create without fear of lawsuits.
The primary goal of IPac is to provide support for those candidates, such as House members Rick Boucher (D-Va.) and Christopher Cox (R-Calif.), who support these principles. After all, to have one's views heard in Washington, ultimately one needs legislators who will be an active voice for those views.
But IPac also educates the public about proposed legislation in IP law that's important to the public interest. Rep. Boucher wrote and Rep. Cox cosponsored the Digital Media Consumers' Rights Act. Of the DMCRA (not to be confused the the DMCA) Alpert said, "The DMCRA would roll back the worst excesses of the DMCA." The DMCRA would, for example, allow people to circumvent DVD copy protection in order to legally play them on a Linux machine. It would also protect devices that have substantial non-infringing uses, a right averred by the Supreme Court in the Betamax decision but now under pressure from the proposed INDUCE Act.
Another proposed bill that IPac is supporting is the Public Domain Enhancement Act. There are countless works covered by copyright law but which have no financial benefit to any copyright holder -- so-called "orphaned works." The copyright protection isn't protecting any financial interest, yet the public can't benefit from these works because they are not in the public domain.
Indeed, Alpert notes, "Many old films are decaying, but archivists can't preserve them since they are still under copyright due to the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act. The copyright holders can't be found, if a copyright holder even exists." The PDEA would let these orphaned works lapse into the public domain, thus saving them from a no-man's-land where no one benefits from them, and where they certainly aren't promoting the progress of science and useful arts.
So how can the open source community use IPac to wield political influence? The easiest way is simply to sign on to its statement of principles, which can be done in a matter of seconds on its Web site. The more people IPac can officially represent, the more authority they have in the intellectual property public debate. If you want to participate further, you can sign up for an email list that provides information as well as additional ways to help.
Of course, IPac is a political action committee, and all PACs need at least some money to promote the interests of their members. "A donation," says Alpert, "whether $1,000 or just $10, will help us make your voice heard in Congress."
It's worth pointing out that IPac practices what it preaches: Its Web site is released under the Creative Commons license.