How would you try to change the world if you had the chance? What would you propose to global leaders to make humanity better off? The Global Redesign Initiative is one of the core themes of next week's annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
I made a suggestion and got invited to Davos to discuss it. That's not an endorsement of my proposal by the WEF, but I am certainly looking forward to going next week!
My proposal is that the world's knowledge should work for all of humanity. Some folks call newly developed knowledge "intellectual property," but this obscures the fact that we don't treat ideas and content the same way as we treat a house or land. We give inventors and authors a time-limited qualified monopoly on their creations to encourage them to bring them to other people through dissemination and commercialization, where appropriate. But, the whole point of the concept of intellectual property is that it's supposed to benefit society, that there is a balancing act between society's interest and self-interest.
In general, we have patents and copyrights and trade secrets as commercial objects because we as a society think that it helps bring the benefits of new creations to everyone. And it seems to work pretty well for stimulating creativity. I live in Silicon Valley, a place that exists to drive creation of new and exciting technology.
But, what happens when something falls short of its potential to help all of humanity? We often leave 90% of the planet out of these discussions. What about a life-saving drug that poor countries can't afford? What about access to knowledge about how to prevent your child from dying from a preventable illness? What about literacy and education? We get used to so many benefits of our incredible intellectual creativity, that we forget about the have-nots.
The challenge is to maintain the balance between commercial exploitation of creativity and society's interests. Neither extreme will achieve a reasonable balance. If you effectively stop all uses of knowledge that don't make lots of money, people will suffer needlessly. If you give all knowledge away freely, you'll discourage people and companies from investing in creating valuable technology and content. So, here's the proposal we made to the WEF, and which I look forward to advocating for in Davos next week.
Benetech's recommendation is to apply intellectual property to unmet social needs, by encouraging WEF stakeholders to think beyond solely profitable applications. We believe this can be accomplished by:
- Corporate leaders encouraging the pro bono or low bono use of their IP to social needs that are outside the corporation's markets.
- CSR offices should go beyond donations and include actively finding the socially beneficial uses of corporate assets.
- Like companies, university tech transfer offices are encouraged solely to find commercially valuable applications of inventions. We need university leaders incented to value the social applications equally.
- For example, European and American governments, publishers and entertainment industries should actively support the proposed Treaty for Access for the Visually Impaired under current consideration at WIPO.
- National governments should encourage the creation of enterprises with explicitly social objectives.
- Series of TV or print articles on these social applications, or an award for the tech transfer office that made the best socially responsible licensing deal.
The great thing about my proposal is that we already have examples of companies, universities, governments and media doing these things. We just need thousands of projects rather than dozens.
One of my favorite social entrepreneurs who effectively recycles intellectual property for the benefit of humanity is Dr. Victoria Hale, who has started two nonprofit pharmaceutical companies as social enterprises. She focuses her efforts on taking drugs that can save thousands of lives and prevent untold suffering, but won't make enough money for a modern pharma company to pursue. The companies are generally happy to help: they've already figured out they can't make enough profits to bring these drugs through clinical trials and to market, if the patient population is poor and the buyers are national or international health agencies.
Regulation is helpful, but not enough. Many universities and corporations are already doing great things voluntarily: we need to hold them up as the finest examples of global citizenship and encourage more voluntary action. Together, these changes would make it possible to employ the fabulous ideas and creativities of the business, academic and government sectors for the benefit of all of humanity, not just the top ten percent.