The 2015 Global Congress on IP and the Public Interest kicked off with its inaugural plenary session, on 14th December, 2015. With over 400 registered participants, ranging from established academics to activists to students gathered in the auditorium in National Law University, Delhi, Phet Sayo, a Senior Fellow at IDRC and a panelist at the session rightly observed that if a bomb were to go off at this venue, “there goes IP activism”. The inaugural session began with Dr. Ranbir Singh, the Vice-Chancellor of NLU-Delhi addressing the audience about NLU-D’s meteoric rise in the field of legal education in India. This was followed by Phet Sayo’s humorous and thought-provoking address on the importance of data in today’s world- he remarked that in some cases, data and meta-data about material objects is attached more value than the objects themselves.
The session then saw Mr. Sean Flynn neatly summarising the history of public interest in the realm of IP, and how the Global Congress tied into this movement. He traced the predecessors of the Global Congress to the Bellagio Global Dialogues and the Doha Declaration meetings, both of which saw a similar confluence of minds devoted to discussing how IP can serve the public interest. He also mentioned how the Public Interest movement of the 90’s and early 2000’s led to a counter-movement in which ACTA and the larger enforcement agenda gained prominence. With this, he urged the attendees of the Global Congress to learn from each other and reorient their energies towards a positive agenda focusing on IP and Public Interest.
The next speaker was Professor Michael Geist from the University of Ottawa, who began by remarking that the new government in Canada appears to have ushered in a new era of openness and transparency, with the Ministerial Mandate Letters being released into the public domain. At the same time, he highlighted the proliferation of IP into other realms of law and policy with the TRIPS and the TPP being the most prominent examples of this proliferation. He pointed out the ramifications of this- that IP is now being framed and shaped in realms such as trade, privacy and internet governance. The challenge for the next twenty years, he urged, is for civil society to keep up and adapt to this change. Hong Xue, Director of the Institute for Internet Policy and Law at Beijing Normal University (BNU) expanded on this theme, highlighting the backsliding of Open Access norms with developments in international trade. With the growth of giant, cross-border ecommerce entities like Alibaba, multilateral trade treaties are attempting to normalise IP maximalism. Provisions such as Art. 60 of TRIPS, the de minimis exception, are being brushed under the carpet in this wave.
Zakir Thomas then debunked some popular IP narratives- the first being that stronger IP protection is necessary for investment in a country and the second being that copyright protection is necessary for content creation. With respect to the first, he highlighted the (underplayed) role of public funding in pharmaceutical R&D, and the various economic and other reasons unrelated to innovation that motivate the actions of Big Pharma. With respect to copyright, he spoke of social media and the open source movement. The takeaway from his address was that innovation happens in a complex environment with several stakeholders- the “one line approach” advocated by popular narratives should be regarded carefully for this reason
The final address was by Nagla Rizk, founding director of the Access to Knowledge for Development Center in Cairo on the different normative conceptions of openness and how the tensions between different conceptions can reflect in growth paradigms. She especially pointed to how the economic growth rhetoric adopted by several national governments ignore the intricacies in open policies. She remarked that we need to examine how openness can aid the public interest by paying attention to the context and realities on the ground.