Intellectual Property Debate

In the music industry in Egypt, sales from CD and cassette tapes are now of secondary importance to musicians, who are making most of their profits from live concerts, contended Nagla Rizk, director of AUC’s Access to Knowledge for Development Center and professor of economics. In the meantime, domestic music piracy rates have spiraled at 60 percent, and Internet downloads have become prevalent. While such practices are categorized as illegal, Rizk believes that redefining what is unlawful and unethical in terms of copyright and intellectual property (IP) laws may be necessary to suit practices at the grassroots level in Egypt and other developing countries. This pertains not only to music, but across other industries, including education and software production.

Across industries, access to knowledge should be facilitated through the adoption of hybrid knowledge development and acquisition models, explained Rizk. “On one end of the spectrum, there is pressure from large businesses and the developed world to impose tighter IP laws,” she said. “On the other end, public policy should be re-engineered to ensure that the potential of knowledge-based development is maximized through technologies and business models that help enable knowledge to be shared extensively.”

From copyrights to patents, IP adopts various forms. IPs are sanctioned means of obtaining exclusive rights to creative concepts, as well as the ideas and applications that are based on them, which are also known as knowledge-based goods. In day-to-day life, IP policies dictate the use and accessibility of information and information-based products. Unauthorized sharing of creative visuals, music or literary work constitutes copyright infringement, and so do the duplication of patented technologies and the revelation of trade secrets. The imposition of stringent IP laws enables IP holders to control the use of their inventions and products.

The logic behind the exclusivity of these ideas is understandable, but contentious, Rizk noted. Monopolization of knowledge and knowledge-based products boosts profits for IP owners, which is argued to encourage the perpetual quest for inventive products. However, because these products are rooted in knowledge, which by definition is non-rival, optimal pricing necessitates that they be widely accessible to the general public. Profit-orientation, therefore, can be problematic, as knowledge and knowledge-based goods often come at prices beyond the reach of those who need them most. “In developing countries,” said Rizk, “poor people frequently find themselves in the dilemma of having to choose between the expensive original and the unlawful copy. It comes as no surprise that the less privileged would have stronger tendencies toward the illegal. Here, the need for novel business models that balance the needs of knowledge creators and users becomes evident, especially given the vast development of enabling technologies.”

In Egypt, the battle for access to knowledge begins with overcoming technological, economic and legal barriers. “Access to knowledge should be perceived as a driving force for economic growth and human development, not as a hurdle,” explained Rizk. “In contrast to Egypt’s strong international stance on the access-to-knowledge platform, the country’s domestic policy does not reflect similar clarity of vision. There is a disconnection between Egypt’s international position, which advocates free access to information, and its local policies, which inhibit it. There is a need to test conventional wisdom, which suggests that IP protection laws should be applied rigorously, and look into policies that represent actual practices on the ground, whereby people are accessing information anyway.”

Rizk believes that accessibility of knowledge and information-embedded products is further impeded by the lack of understanding of the difference between economic and moral rights. “No one questions the moral right of the knowledge creator,” said Rizk. “It is the economic right that we research, unpack and develop, especially in light of new and enabling technologies. In Egypt, the blur between economic and moral rights helps propagate the debate as a moral issue, not an economic one, which can be dangerous if used to promote or even protect business interests.”

Part of the challenge facing Egypt is that moral rights are not strictly respected. “IP policy is increasingly marginalized by practices of both production and consumption on the ground, wherein Egyptians take the challenge of realizing access to knowledge into their own hands, with little consideration for formal and legal policies,” affirmed Rizk.

For experts who are looking into policies on access to knowledge in Egypt, the widespread view of IP rights from a policing perspective is problematic, Rizk argued. “Discussion of IP issues is confined to courtrooms, legal personnel and enforcement contexts,” she said. “This reflects limited realization of the developmental angle of the IP debate.”

The IP debate put forth by some economists stems from the notion that public interest may be negatively affected by such protectionist laws, particularly in developing countries, where the virtues of openness in knowledge are especially critical because of potential economic and political benefits. “Access to knowledge is a way to unleash restricted economic value, which will inevitably lead to new and expanded business opportunities,” said Rizk. “Both equity and efficiency can be improved by expanding the distribution of knowledge and knowledge-based goods. It also contributes to democratic participation and global inclusion. Knowledge is an integral component of human development, and IP policies restrict the dissemination of knowledge, which hinders development.”

When examining access to knowledge through the lens of human development, the need for available technologies in education is even more compelling. “Technologies are now utilized as platforms for open educational resources,” explained Rizk. “The Internet has become an incredible source of training and information. Even multinational companies are realizing the importance of making education software available to those who may not afford it by offering special deals and prices to students, teachers and educational institutions. In parallel, a great deal of learning comes from utilizing open-source software (OSS) in education, but also as a means of human capital development.”

Rizk, whose research sheds light on the current reality of the Egyptian software ecosystem and the potential for OSS development, reveals an OSS sector that is still in its infancy. “There is strong potential to contribute to knowledge liberalization and economic growth in Egypt, if properly supported,” said Rizk. “The existence of a healthy business sector based on OSS will have several advantages for Egypt as a developing country rich with Arabic content, whose potential has not yet been realized in the digital world. Encouraging an ecosystem in Egypt that incorporates a healthy OSS component has benefits from economic, technical, social and political standpoints. This includes knowledge liberalization, innovation, efficiency, localization and affordability.”

For Rizk, OSS is a viable substitute for its counterparts. “Open-source software offers an alternative to the mainstream represented in proprietary software, one that is facilitated by collaborative technologies,” she explained. “Business models built around open-source software offer novel means of remuneration that are built around a base of free knowledge, which enables customization.”
The promotion of OSS development concepts largely hinges on regulatory and legislative reform, Rizk argued. “We need a mix of regulatory and legislative environments that embrace openness and encourage new businesses built around knowledge sharing. This includes (but is not limited) to freedom of information legislation, as well as competition and IP laws.”

The ultimate goal, said Rizk, is to empower citizens. “We need to embrace this culture of openness, especially as access to knowledge is tantamount to freedom of expression and the demand for justice. Installing the right to knowledge as a constitutional right would confirm our commitment, as a nation, to promote knowledge and reflect our belief in it being a human right and cornerstone for development.”