The United States has long been a leader in fostering for itself a strong intellectual property system and encouraging other nations to develop strong intellectual property systems. And it makes sense that we should — our nation has had a 230-plus year commitment to innovation. Our founding fathers enshrined IP rights in our Constitution, affirmative rights that in other countries are only granted grudgingly. IP is a right of the people — not an exception taken at the discretion of the government. Our commitment to innovation has served us well, producing the strongest innovation environment the world has ever seen.
But there is another side to US intellectual property leadership, evident in the dual roles of incentivizing innovators by giving them protection for their creations, while ultimately permitting widespread dissemination of those creations to enrich the public corpus and facilitate future innovation. Both roles are critical and, although the second is less attractive for innovators in the short-term, the benefits of the resulting increase in collective intelligence stemming from the dissemination of creative work is key to technological advancement.
The typical mechanisms for effectuating this latter role are to time-limit monopolies granted over intellectual property and to limit those monopolies to the appropriate subject matter (inventions, for example, that are novel and non-obvious). But there is another mechanism that, until recently, has not been given much attention — exceptions and limitations in narrow but appropriately circumscribed situations.
It was exactly this mechanism that the United States championed in 2009 when it proposed before the World Intellectual Property Organization what would become the “Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons who are Blind, Visually Impaired, or otherwise Print Disabled.” This Treaty, conceived, created and developed by the United States in collaboration with other countries from Europe to Central and South America to Africa, is the first-ever treaty of its kind. It provides access to copyrighted works to millions of print-disabled people throughout the world. The Treaty for the print-disabled was formally adopted on June 27 of this year.
What is remarkable about the work the United States undertook in leading the sponsorship and adoption of the Treaty is that the problem it addresses is demonstratively not a U.S. problem. Of the more than 314 million blind and visually impaired people in the world, 90 percent live in developing nations. And those who live in the U.S. already have access to a wealth of works in accessible formats. This is an example of U.S. leadership at its best — for the benefit of the world. This is authentic leadership.
It is also important to understand that the Treaty is more than gratuitous. Consider for example the inventions created by visually impaired innovators. In 1945, Ralph Teetor, a blind automotive engineer, invented cruise control, a standard feature on almost all automobiles today. Blind Saudi engineer Mohannad Jibreel Abudayyah has over 20 patents, including one over a submarine that can dive 5,265 meters below sea level. James Teh and Michael Curran, visually impaired inventors, developed a popular voice-to-speech system that “reads” any text a computer user touches with his or her mouse. These are only a few examples of the innovations that result from increased access to knowledge. What further breakthroughs will follow from the adoption of the Treaty? When you enable human potential for hundreds of millions of creative individuals, the upside is unlimited.
America should be proud of our country’s global leadership. We are at our best when we encourage a healthy and value-promoting balance between protecting innovation and providing wide access to it. And when the US, the champion of strong IP rights, steps up to leading for the benefit of the world — that is authentic leadership.