Thursday, 7 February 2019

Are upload filters and the EU’s new copyright law misguided? Shouldn’t we instead re-invent innovation?

Compared to material goods, information is a special resource. While material goods are limited, which can lead to resource conflicts, information can be reproduced cheaply and as often as we like. Nevertheless, current intellectual property rights treat digital goods more or less like material goods. I believe, a different kind of intellectual property right (IPR) would dramatically accelerate innovation and create many more jobs. While we have to catch up with the pace at which our world is changing, the current IPR regime creates major obstacles. Therefore, we need a new paradigm which will allow collaborative creation ("co-creation") to flourish.

In fact, we could fundamentally change the way we foster innovation. Currently, many people don't like to share their best ideas, because they don't want other people to become rich on the back of their research, while getting very little compensation. As a result, it often takes years until an idea is shared with the world through a publication or patent. But what if we innovated cooperatively from the very first moment? Let us assume an idea is born in America, and it is shared with others through a public portal such as github. Afterwards, experts from Asia could work on these ideas within hours, then experts from Europe could build on their results, and so on. In this way, we could create a research and development paradigm that never sleeps, that overcomes the limits of a single team, and that embraces "collective intelligence".

Such an approach would produce considerable synergy effects. My colleagues Didier Sornette and Thomas Maillart recently demonstrated that, by collaborating, two people can produce open-source software that otherwise would have required 2.5 developers ("1+1=2.5").[1] Geoffrey West, Luis Bettencourt and I, together with some others discovered a similar pattern in cities: productivity that depends on social interactions tends to disproportionately increase with population size.[2] For example, a city with two million inhabitants would be about 20 percent more productive per 1 million inhabitants than two cities of one million. This is probably the main reason for the rapid and on-going urbanization of the world.

Interestlingly, Internet forums of all kinds have nowadays created something akin to virtual cities. Many citizen science projects (and also the famous Polymath project on collaborative mathematics) underline that a crowd-based approach can complement or even outperform classical research and development approaches.[3]

Given the great advantages of collaboration, what are the main obstacles? A central problem is the lack of incentives to share. Currently, researchers are motivated by two kinds of rewards: they receive a basic salary and they earn the recognition of their peers in the form of citations of their published work. For this reason, many scientists do not share their ideas until they have been published.

Patents are a further obstacle to the sharing and widespread implementation of good ideas. While patents are actually intended to stimulate research and development by protecting the commercial value of ideas, in the digital economy patents seem to hinder innovation more than they foster it. It is as if everyone would own a certain number of words and could charge others for using them – this would certainly obstruct the exchange of ideas considerably. However, it has recently become difficult to legally enforce hardware and software patents, and there have been an increasing number of patent deals between competing companies. The electric car company Tesla has even decided to allow others to use their patents.[4] All this might indicate that a paradigm shift in terms of intellectual property rights is just around the corner.

Moreover, it has become increasingly difficult to earn large amounts of money by publishing music, movies or news. This is not just a problem of illegal downloads. In contrast to material resources, information is becoming an abundant resource. Given that every year, we produce as much data as in the entire history of humankind, information will become increasingly cheaper.

Micropayments would be better

So why not pursue an entirely different IPR approach, perhaps in parallel to the current intellectual property regime? By it's very nature, information "wants" to be free and to be shared. Every culture is based on this. Information is a virtually unlimited resource, which in principle can be reproduced almost for free. In contrast to material resources, this allows us to overcome scarcity, poverty and conflict. Nevertheless, we currently try to prevent people from copying digital products. What if we simply allowed copying, but introduced a micropayment system to ensure that every copy generates revenue for the content creator (and those who help to spread content)? Under such circumstances, we would probably love it when others copy our work!

Rather than complaining about people who copy digital products, we should make it easier to pay for the fruits of creativity and innovation. Remember that, some time back, Apple's iTunes made it simple to download and buy songs, for 99 cents each. It would be great to have a similarly simple, automatic compensation scheme for digital products, ideas and innovations. Modern text-mining algorithms could form the basis of a system, where content creators and companies would be automatically paid whenever their ideas are used. This payment could be calibrated according to the scale of the initial investment, the age of the invention and its "innovativeness", i.e. the degree to which it made advances over already existing solutions. This would encourage cooperative innovation without providing a disincentive for new research.

Establishing a micropayment system would also allow companies and citizens to earn money on the data they generate and exchange. Then, everyone could benefit from contributing to the global information ecosystem. This would create an incentive system that would reward the sharing of data. But to get paid for every copy, one would need a particular file format. Copies ("offspring") of data would have to be linked with their respective source ("parent") via a kind of "data cord", so that micro-payments between the owners and users of the data can be processed.[5] In fact, a "Personal Data Store" would be needed to execute these payments.[6]

The above text is the content of Information Box 9.1. of the book „The Automation of Society Is Next: How to Survive the Digital Revolution"

The title has been changed.

[1] D. Sornette, T. Maillart, and and G. Ghezzi, How much is the whole really more than the sum of its parts? 1+1=2.5: Superlinear productivity in collective group actions, PLoS ONE 9(8): e103023, see

[2] L. M. A. Bettencourt, J. Lobo, D. Helbing, C. Kühnert, and G. B. West (2007) Growth, innovation, scaling and the pace of life in cities. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA (PNAS) 104, 7301-7306

[3] see , ,

[4] Why Elon Musk just opened Tesla's patents to his biggest rivals, see

[5] J. Lanier, Who Owns the Future? (Simon & Schuster, 2014)

[6] Another function of this Personal Data Store would be to give each user control over his or her own personal data. Whenever personal data would be (intentionally or accidentally) produced about someone, it would have to be sent to that person's data store (which would be like a mailbox for data). The person could then determine what kind of data they are willing to share, with whom, for what period of time, and for what purposes.

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