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Fifty days to change the world

The government wants to hear what you have to say about IP reform. Get busy, or get busted
Written by Leader , Contributor

Intellectual-property law is a three-way bargain between state, society and inventor. In it, new ideas are protected for long enough to make invention a worthwhile business. Then they become free, allowing society to build on them without restriction. The state's side of the equation is to act as gatekeeper, deciding what is and isn't worthy of protection before enforcing both the restrictions and the freedoms that follow.

That bargain is broken. With patents, the state is failing to follow its own rules on what makes a new idea, as the sheer mass of data makes it impossible to verify an inventor's claims of novelty. Because of this, businesses are filing a blizzard of patents through greed at the idea that they can somehow lay claim to the ideas of others and through fear that without them they are defenceless against predators. It's never been less tempting to start up a company to profit from innovation, or more tempting to recruit a rabble of lawyers and go hunting instead.

To its credit, the UK government has realised this — and in a move that shames our hard-nosed cynicism, it's started to do the right thing. As part of a promised reform of IP rights in the digital age, it's asked ex-FT editor Andrew Gowers to run a review. He's started by asking everyone who's interested to submit evidence on how things are going wrong — not just with patents but with DRM, filesharing, fair use, copyright extensions, orphan works and so on.

We know that there's plenty of evidence out there, not just from the cases we've reported but from cases we can't. UK firms have told us in confidence about being hit with million-dollar patent claims that could have been successfully defended at a cost of $2m — and the patent lawyers being entirely open about this. We know of industry sectors cited by industry lobbyists as being in favour of software patents, but where each individual business has said that they hate the whole idea — yet need to patent for defence.

You may have such evidence. If you do, then read the request and respond. If you have a view on DRM, copyright and fair use — respond. If you know someone else who needs to be heard, forward the link. You can be absolutely sure that those who view intellectual property as the right to infinite profit will be lobbying hard. You have just over a month to make sure theirs is not the only voice heard, and to strike a bargain that will benefit us all.

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