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Saturday, February 21, 2009

Hacking WTO to support public goods, including OA research

In January, I blogged James Love's Knowledge as a Public Good: Two Mechanisms, a presentation at the Fórum Mundial Ciência E Democracia (Belém, Parã, Brazil, January 26, 2009).  But at the time I didn't appreciate the subtle suggestion he made there.  Thanks to David Bollier for pointing it out. 

First, David Bollier sets the stage:

Computer programmer Richard Stallman invented a famous “hack” around copyright law when he created the General Public License, which enables a community of hackers to create their own commons of software code. Copyright law is used as a vehicle to serve the commons.

It sounds improbable, but could something similar be done with the procedures of the World Trade Organization? Could a treaty apparatus designed to serve multinational corporations be exploited in a new way so that it does not just promote free trade in private goods and services, but enables countries to collaborate to create public goods?

That is precisely what James Love, director of Knowledge Ecology International, recently proposed at the World Forum on Science and Democracy, held in Belém, Brasil....

Love’s brilliant idea is to re-purpose the portion of the WTO agreement that deals with the market for services, and try to use it as a procedural platform that would let different nations cooperate in the creation of such public goods as open source software, shared scientific research on drugs and global warming solutions, the translation of works into other languages, and much more.

Now from Love himself:

...There is much criticism of the GATS [General Agreement on Trade in Services] itself, much of it we share. However, as a model for creating binding commitments for a diverse set of obligations, it is quite interesting. Hence, the earlier reference to the “hack” of the WTO. We are interested in borrowing from the GATS the structure of accepting binding heterogeneous offers to supply -- in this case, not liberation of services, but the supply of public goods.

If such an agreement existed with the WTO, several countries could propose a collaboration to fund open source research on malaria. Countries could bind government agencies to require government funded research to be made available, for free, on the Internet, as was recently done by the U.S. NIH and in some other government research agencies. Like-minded countries could agree to make binding commitments to support the development of open source software, fund new databases, share the costs of hosting Wikipedia servers, pay for translations of scientific works into other languages, or for the creation of more accessible formats of books and articles for persons who are blind or have other reading disabilities. The lists of things that could be expanded and supported under such an agreement are endless.

In theory, all of these things could be done without a WTO agreement. The benefits of the WTO agreement would be several, however. First, it is quite costly to set up a separate treaty or agreement, particularly one that can so effectively enforce commitments, as can the WTO. Second, by introducing public goods into the WTO environment - the culture of the WTO would be profoundly changed. “Asks” and “offers” in the WTO negotiations would not longer be exclusively about the private goods market, or about the privatization and enclosure of knowledge itself. There would be an immediate shift to consider the competing benefits of greater openness, and a larger global commons. Knowledge that was produced to be “free” would have a new value, as a trading chip in the WTO environment.

Update (3/29/09). Also see Glyn Moody's article on Love's hack.