FSFE at WIPO: Free Software and technology transfer

Here is the third of three statements which FSFE made two weeks ago, at the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO). This one is about technology transfer, and how Free Software opens up a whole new world of possibilities there. I’m posting this one two weeks late. In between, there was FOSDEM, which goes a good way towards explaining the delay.

Most people and countries at WIPO seem to think of technology transfer as the process whereby a company from an industrialised country licenses its patents to a government or company in a developing country, and perhaps gives the licensees a hand in actually using the invention which the patent describes to do something useful.

Hm, notice anything? A patent is just a monopoly on an invention, granted by the state. Gracefully allowing someone else to make use of that invention doesn’t really transfer any technology, and certainly not the skills needed to make use of that technology.

So the current understanding of technology transfer may be too limited. I’ve argued that Free Software does a great job of taking skills from, in principle, any part of the planet to any other.

Free Software development processes (where they’re open to the public) make it possible for a developer in Malawi to work together with people who have decades of programming experience, and have been trained at the world’s best universities. Working together in this way means that the developer will not only be able to look at what other people can do; she will be able to learn with them, and make their skills her own.

This is what the statement below refers to as “absorptive capacity” – being able to actually do something with the technology you receive. It’s a whole lot better than being given a paper that says “you’re allowed to use our patent”, and then not knowing what to do with it.

By bringing this point of view into the discussions at WIPO, we achieve several things. The direct effect is that we make the delegates there aware that there are alternatives to the strict, traditional perspective on copyright and patents which they hear about most of the time. We make them aware that Free Software and other innovative ways of managing knowledge should always be part of their discussions. We show them that there’s a tool in their toolbox that they should learn how to use.

Once the delegates are aware of Free Software, we ask them to consider the needs of Free Software developers and businesses as they design rules that eventually will apply to all of us. Sure, progress is slow. But we’ve been keeping the pressure up for five years now, and we’re seeing results. WIPO has already become a much friendlier place to discuss our ideas, and many people there are seeking constructive discussions with us. The work is paying off.

So without further ado, here is FSFE’s statement from the WIPO session of the Standing Committee on Patents, two weeks ago.





(Geneva, 25-29 January 2010)

Thank you, Mr Chairman.

The Free Software Foundation Europe agrees with the remark made by Spain on behalf of the European Union that efforts to transfer technology must be complemented by a capacity of the recipient to absorb the technology. We also concur with the EU that businesses and individuals will have a central role to play inincreasing the flow of knowledge around the globe. Free Software Foundation Europe believes that the businesses and individuals which form the global Free Software development community provide an example which should be studied in more depth. As the topic is not addressed in the present study, I would like to briefly list a few relevant points.

Paragraph 19 of the preliminary study states that there are only two ways to obtain new technologies: either to develop it oneself, or to acquire it from others. FSFE believes that this statement should be complemented with a very important third possibility: To develop a new technology in cooperation with others. This has the advantage that soon, all participants in the process will have an equally deep level of expertise.

Developing countries need to avoid being locked out of acquiring skills and competencies. We also agree with the views of the numerous delegations which consider the patent system as only one tool in the toolbox we have available to encourage technology transfer.

For the field of Free Software, also known as open source, recent studies demonstrate that the process of developing and adapting software helps users make technology truly their own. They become creators of knowledge, rather than merely passive consumers of proprietary technologies. Many Free Software projects are developed in an open and collaborative process. This greatly increases the absorptive capacity as discussed in paragraph 42 of the current study.

As described in the FLOSSIMPACT study which was prepared by the United Nations University’s MERIT institute in 2006 on behalf of the European Commission, Free Software works as a free-of-charge high quality training environment. Developers benefit from a type of informal apprenticeships.

These informal apprenticeships are, in effect, a form of technology transfer between those who pay for formal training and those who do not, or cannot. Knowledge flows from big companies to small ones and from rich countries to poorer ones. As the necessary skills spread, business activity increases. The earningcapacity of participating developers grows, even without an explicit investment in formal training.

Paragraph 22 of the study gives brief consideration to technologies not covered by patents. We believe that these points highlight the importance and the potential of innovative approaches to put patents and copyright into the service of social and economic development. We therefore encourage this committee to consider the enabling effects of these approaches in more depth.

Thank you, Mr Chairman.