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Intellectual property laws in flux

Individual rights are being chipped away as corporations work to expand intellectual property laws, panellists say

Big corporations are working diligently and successfully to expand intellectual property laws in the digital age -- a trend that's chipping away at individual rights.

That's the message a panel of law professors had at the Computer Freedom and Privacy Conference in Toronto, Canada, as they dissected a series of lawsuits and legislation aimed at making sure people don't copy material.

Citing cybersquatter legislation in the United States, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and other company-backed attempts to protect property, the panellists worried about the effects such restrictions could have on free speech and the Internet.

David Post of Temple Law School panned the controversial anti-cybersquatting legislation and raised questions about how the courts and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) are dealing with disputes regarding who has the right to certain domain names.

Under some laws and ICANN's dispute resolution policy, people can't register names in "bad faith," a term that has yet to be defined, Post said. One person in the audience asked if a parody site could be considered a site registered in "bad faith". The answer from the panel: We don't know.

Yet another panellist, Randall Davis of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, outlined what he called the "digital dilemma", or the collision of the information infrastructure and intellectual property in the digital age. He said advances such as digital information, networks and the Web have made it easier than ever for private individuals to copy information. "It used to be difficult to be a pirate," Davis said.

Davis questioned whether the concept of copying is even the right framework to work within in the digital age. Davis also said companies are increasingly moving to a contract model from a copyright model, meaning people are renting the experience of digital content (similar to what people do when they see a movie in a cinema) rather than owning their own copy.

He said companies should look at new business models instead of just locking up their content. For example, companies can give away products and sell accompanying services or upgrades (as the Linux companies do), give away one product that promotes other products (such as Adobe's business model for its Adobe Reader), or differentiate themselves by customising "to the extreme".

Yochai Benkler, of the New York University Law School, said a proposal moving through the US House of Representatives could make it illegal to use information that used to flow freely by restricting how information about the world can be collected and stored in databases, such as a phone book.

For example, he said the proposed law could prevent political scientists from interpreting polling data that's been compiled in a database. And it could threaten the existence of companies like Auctionwatch, which put together lists of who's buying what from auction sites such as eBay.

"This is a right that is new and added to what exists currently," he said.

One of the dangers, Benkler said, is that companies have big bucks to lobby for ownership of certain materials and information, but few are lobbying to make sure that traditional individual rights -- such as fair use and free speech -- are protected in the process.

"We should care about laws that tell people what facts about the world they can use and how they can use them," he said.

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