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Intellectual Property Strategy: a book, a panel, and a movement

I attended one of Berkman’s panels of leading thinkers at Harvard on Monday, and picked up (legitimately) a copy of John Palfrey’s new book, Intellectual Property Strategy. The speakers on Monday, who included household names of the free culture movement such as Lawrence Lessig and Eric von Hippel, emphasized the culture shift that is breaking the seemingly iron grip of current policies that favor wealthy companies with portfolios of patents and copyrights. But I think even these speakers failed to convey how huge a sea change in underway.

The general tone was regret for the attitude among most institutions–including universities and other non-profits with public missions–that keeps information closed by default. This is what Palfrey calls the notion of intellectual property as “sword and shield,” mostly of value either to launch lawsuits or discourage others from doing so. Law professor Jonathan Zittrain (whose book The Future of the Internet I reviewed at its release) pointed out that when Harvard professors wanted to offer cyberseminars, the provost first opposed it, then insisted they change the term to “an online lecture and discussion series.” In the wake of Stanford’s popular online AI class, Harvard may look more benignly on these efforts to reach out beyond its privileged campus in the future.

Lessig said that, at the beginning of the free culture movement, an observer would expect it to make its first inroads among the educational communities and universities, while those who make a business out of their IP (artists, film-makers, musicians) would be the last to grudgingly go along. Instead, the opposite has happened. Large numbers of creative people are experimenting with Creative Commons and shared projects, while the educators have been slow to see the light.

And Terry Fisher, director of Berkman, reported that in his world travels to teach about intellectual property, he has found wide gaps between chief officers in their understanding and acceptance of the idea that sharing and openness can be valuable. Those who have benefitted a lot from the current regime have trouble seeing any alternative. And while he assumed in the past that big IP holders would never change until forced to, he now has a softer view and thinks that education can move them in the right direction.

And that’s Palfrey goal. He wants to modulate the sword-and-shield approach–although not jettisoning it entirely– with a more positive view that looks for ways to improve an organization’s bottom line or mission by sharing, either through an open license or more nuanced arrangements.

His book therefore blends two perspectives on the intellectual property scene, in sometime awkward angles reminiscent of a Picasso portrait. On the one hand, he encourages all organizations–including non-profits, who are usually left out of IP texts–to carry out knowledge management, consider where they are innovating intellectually, and think about how licensing can spread best practices while bringing in extra revenue. This is not a new idea to intellectual property lawyers and other such specialists, but it’s valuable for the CxO-level readers at which this book is aimed.

On the other hand, Palfrey is a fan of freedom, which can range from a classic open source license to such midway strategies as providing an API to data or asking one’s customers to design products. These are all familiar practices to free culture and free software advocated. And although Palfrey acknowledges that traditional intellectual property conflicts with the ideal of openness, he spends much of the book trying to harmonize the two approaches, a noble quest that I’m not sure brings back the grail.

The book could also provide fodder for Richard Stallman and others who deride the term “intellectual property” altogether. What thread ties together licensing a Disney character to put on a children’s product, patenting a medicine, and releasing music on iTunes? Nothing, to my point of view, except the very word “intellectual property.” Yet they all are covered in this book, requiring it to stay at a high level of abstraction.

Still, the basic messages in the book hold up, and MIT Press is doing some interesting experiments with the book itself. They are releasing an iPad app based on it (later to be ported to Android) and setting up a web site for case studies, video interviews, and perhaps ultimately comments from readers. Many of us at the forum encouraged this exploration of reader interactivity, and I asked, “When does this stop being a book and stop being an app, and become a movement”?

Monday’s panel also honored Palfrey for his long work at Harvard and congratulated him on a move that surprised everyone at Berkman: he is leaving at the end of the semester to become head of the prep school, Phillips Academy. Here he will push forward innovation in another area that excites him, the effect of digital media on the education and development of young people. He researched these ideas in his book Born Digital, which I reviewed on Radar. Palfrey assured me on Monday that he would not eliminate all print books from the Phillips Academy library, as Cushing Academy did a couple years ago.

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