July 2006

Asia Commons Conference and Pan Asia Networking Programme, IDRC

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Most of the activity related to Information and Communications Technologies for Development (ICT4D) have focussed on connectivity and ensuring that those that are digitally excluded get access to computers and the Internet. However, having access to telecommunications networks is not enough to fully benefit from information and communications technologies (ICTs). Access to the information conveyed by the networks is also key. However, as much as the Internet and the digital world give one historically unprecedented access to information, digital technologies, such as Digital Rights Management (DRM), also have the potential to curtail people's access to knowledge.

Indeed, rapid technological progress in information technologies, poses new issues for copyright law. Today, a digital file can be copied and instantaneously distributed worldwide through the Internet, thus potentially depriving the copyright holder of revenue from licensed sales. As a result, holders of copyright on creative works in digital format, generally emanating from developed countries, are contesting the right of consumers to make personal copies of copyrighted materials.

At the same time, consumers are beginning to chafe at copyright owners' use of digital technologies to prevent or deter copying and other unauthorised uses of copyrighted works. Possibly even worse, Asia is supposedly home to one of the biggest markets for pirated material in the world. The Business Software Alliance, an industry lobby group, estimates that more than 8 billion USD is “lost” to software piracy in Asia (figures that leave some experts skeptical, it must be said).

As digital processing grows more powerful and the high-speed distribution of digital content becomes more pervasive, the debate over copyright issues in particular, whether copyright law has achieved the appropriate balance between incentives to engage in creative activity and the social benefits that arise from the widespread use of creative works is likely to intensify.

Although most of the questions around access to knowledge revolve around copyright, it should also be said that a long-standing debate as to the relationship between patents and innovation also exists. The question as to whether patents help stimulate innovation (the conventional theory) or whether strict patents actually stifle innovation (for which there is an increasing amount of examples in the software domain) is an important one for policy-makers attempting to ensure their economies are able to be productive and competitive in the information economy.

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Hence this leads us to a set of important questions for those attempting to better understand how developing and emerging communities in Asia can benefit from the knowledge and opportunities conveyed by the Internet:

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