Just don’t break Wikipedia in the process, says its co-founder
An interview with internet entrepreneur Jimmy Wales
Gavin: Jimmy Wales, serial internet entrepreneur and founder of Wikipedia, was described by Forbes as “one of the most impactful humans alive.” Jimmy, thanks for joining us. Can I just start by asking: Is protecting intellectual property key to protecting innovation?
Jimmy: As a core principle, the idea of protecting the rights of creators is incredibly important. But, that's only a start. What of the extent of property rights and intellectual property? How long should they go for? When should they be limited? What about quoting? What about fair use? All these kinds of issues are also very, very important. So, I think one of the things that makes this such a difficult area of public policy is that we do have a copyright lobby—you might call it. who are really copyright maximalists, who really want to overstep far beyond what most people would think is reasonable. So, although it's important, we have to think about what the limits are as well.
Gavin: So, do you think that are we trying to squeeze a lot of modern technological developments into an old system, that is not quite robust or ready enough for modernity?
Jimmy: I definitely think so. There are a lot of ways to look at that and think about that. If you are at your kid’s birthday party, you shoot a little video on your phone, and there is some music in the background, and you post that little clip on YouTube for example, not intending for it to become famous or viral, you just want to put it somewhere so you can send the link to grandma. Well, there is a very good chance that YouTube would automatically detect that background track and silence the audio. But it’s not what most people think of as inappropriate use of copyrighted materials. You are not trying to pirate it. You are not trying to make money off the music.
Gavin: It’s incidental.
Jimmy: It’s incidental. But we are in sort of an environment where that kind of stuff does happen over time in a way that most people say that’s kind of fair use, like you know, I pay for Spotify, or the radio stations pay for the rights to the song, and it’s out in the world, and we are using it, and I took a video of my kids, and you know, I am not a pirate. When writing the copyright laws, nobody thought about [that sort of IP use]. Now suddenly because the technology’s moved into the cloud, the copyright owners are trying to be a little more aggressive in a way that probably doesn’t make sense.
Gavin: Is this system always trying to play catch-up? It’s kind of like cops and robbers as it were. One is always trying to keep one ahead of the other.
Jimmy: Yeah, definitely, and I like the analogy of cops and robbers. We can think about sort of legitimate copyright enforcement against piracy. We can also kind of flip that on its head. Maybe the cops are the robbers if it's the music industry trying to control everything out of an interest that's not really about protecting artists.
Gavin: It’s interesting you say that. There was a recent Huawei IP forum where a quite distinguished former diplomat said that the IP system was invented to ensure “the ones who have keep what they have, and stop others reaching the same level”. Do you think he's right, or again is it a balance?
Jimmy: You know, it's a balance. And it’s really interesting because sometimes you hear people in the music industry, record company people, talking in very sort of high moral ground terms about protecting the rights of artists. And you think, actually, your industry has quite a long history of screwing over artists, right? So, maybe we should think a little harder about what that means. So, for example, one of the important things to think about with copyright protection is actually, it is that artist. So, it’s that new, creative person who's creating, let’s say music work, or it could be art, it could be text, it could be anything. If they are able to enforce their rights, and they are able to make sure they are getting paid appropriately for their work, that's a good thing. Actually, it isn’t about protecting the vested interests. It’s about protecting that small artist. Too often though, the small artist gets kind of lost in the shuffle. And indeed, a lot of artists these days do take quite reasonable and quite flexible views of copyright. You know, would you rather your music be incredibly highly protected so no one can share it, and you sell 300 copies of an album, or would you rather your song go viral and be listened to for free by hundreds of millions of people all around the world? That’s launching an amazing career. So, I think a lot of artists are now saying, “Actually, I want my stuff out there. Of course, I also want to get paid somehow.” But that business model is very complicated these days.
Gavin: That does seem to be the core balancing act - how much you want to hold it tight, and how much you want it to be out there so people know who you are, whatever the field of expertise.
Gavin: But there is also this question with patents, that you need to have them to incentivize people to innovate. And yet, there doesn’t seem to be any actual link between the amount of effort that goes into a patent and granting it. Instead it’s all about the originality and non-obviousness of it. Should we reflect more the sunk costs, the R&D that goes in when we’re considering whether awarding a patent or not?
Jimmy: Yeah, I think so, but I think it’s really complicated with patents in particular. There’s this quite wonderful vision of the genius inventor who comes up and thinks of a great idea, and is able to get a patent to protect it. And then they have a legal right. So, then the big company can’t just steal the idea immediately. But we know that doesn’t always work so well. You know, the intermittent windshield wipers story: the guy [who invented them] fought in the courts for years and years, and finally won. But it was a long time. The system didn’t really function as you might hope, or might expect. And I am thinking about the big pharma type of question. This pill costs 12 cents to manufacture, and they sell it for 20 dollars. This is outrageous and unfair, but just hold on, that’s how much it costs to manufacture each additional pill. They also spent 3 billion on a million field experiments and projects to try to find that compound that can save lives. It’s not so easy to just go, “oh, now we just take the patent away and do it now”. That doesn’t mean we should never do that. I think there is a really interesting set of questions around Covid vaccines for example, where we are actually facing a global health emergency. We might say, “Look, in normal times, we might not do it this way, but we actually have an actual emergency”. So, you know, it’s complicated. But in general, I think the idea that patents do have an impact on the incentive structure for research and development is actually completely valid.
Gavin: You hinted earlier at this, but do you think there should be more of a time limit on some of these copyrights or patents? That effectively they’re monopolies and protected for too long?
Jimmy: Yeah, definitely. In the early years in the US, and I think it’s fairly universal, it was 14 years copyright, and could be extended to 28. Then, that got extended. Now, it can be incredibly long. Maybe that’s ok for certain works – for example, Disney wanting to protect some of its very early copyrighted materials – but I can’t see how extending protection incentivizes creativity today. We have a project called Wikibooks, an effort to create free textbooks. Let’s say you take an algebra textbook that was first published in 1980, and it’s been out of print for a great number of years. An algebra text is not like a Mickey Mouse cartoon; why not remove make it available free, to students who need it? There should be a requirement, maybe every 14 years, to pay to renew your copyright. Not an exorbitant price, but just something. Just so you put your hand up and go “Yeah, I am still here, I still want this.” There is a lot of room for a fairly detailed look at how to improve some of the barriers that we see.
Gavin: When you think about licensing IP, what are the main principles to follow?
Jimmy: It’s got to be a reasonable price. So that you are not blocking creativity with some minor patent on a pinch point, where an explosion of creativity could come beyond that point if only you don’t try to monopolize everything yourself.
Gavin: Wikipedia is one of the most widely use knowledge-sharing platforms. What’s your vision for it and why do you think sharing knowledge is important?
Jimmy: My vision for Wikipedia is to create a free high-quality encyclopedia for everyone on the planet in their own language. Knowledge sharing is important because the best way to improve to state of the world is for more people to have solid fact-based information.
Gavin: Companies typically keep a lot of their technologies secret, particularly for product manufacturers like Huawei. Do you think being more open would help the technologies evolve faster? Why?
Jimmy: Sometimes it would, but the balance between being open to reap the benefits of openness and incentivizing new research and knowledge creation is a rich question. For general knowledge, sharing is best.
Gavin: At a recent event, Huawei’s IP head said most of the company’s patents are filed for sharing, instead of blocking. But sharing for a return, so that it makes business sense and our inventors can continue innovating. What’s your view of that?
Jimmy: I think that's basically right. Patents are a technique for making knowledge public rather than keeping them as trade secrets.
Gavin: To this whole question about sharing: is it almost a moral responsibility in certain areas? Again, not one-size-fits-all, but to come up with a brilliant idea and allow others to use it.
Jimmy: Yeah, so I believe Nike was taking the lead on this, in terms of sharing certain patents they had on manufacturing processes that were much better for the environment. And they decided with another group of their competitors to say actually we should all pull these certain patents together, and basically release them all, because we shouldn’t be using these as competitive advantages over each other, we should basically all get the benefit for the whole industry of reducing our pollution footprint. I think there are cases like that where it’s sort of obvious. That’s basically the right thing to do. Because the patent is not about something that actually impacts consumers directly. It’s not a new design for a shoe closure that might sweep the market, and be like this is genius, you know, and actually very helpful. It’s just like, ok, we’d reduce our carbon footprint by 7%. Basically, everybody should do that.
Gavin: Should there be a tighter “use it or lose it” element as well to some of these things, whether it’s an idea or innovation? Your example of the algebra book - unless you’ve commercialized it, or it remains commercial, the patent should just expire?
Jimmy: Yeah, I think that’s become harder in one sense though. We’ve talked about the idea of copyrights that aren’t being used. So, something’s been out of print for a long time. It’s not commercially available. And so, should people be able to go, look, this gives you the right to have exclusive commercial use, but you are not using it, so therefore we are going to do it? And the problem these days is that print on-demand kind of erases the distinction between whether it’s commercially available or not. In the past, the only economical level that makes sense to print out a book is around 1,000 copies or something like that. Now, one copy. That’s efficient. So basically, if someone’s got the digital file, they can go, of course it’s still available commercially. You just buy it here. We’ll print and send it to you. So, it’s become trickier. And I suspect that’s true in the patent world as well. That is kind of really hard to say whether it’s commercially available or not. It sounds quite plausible to say there should be some licensing terms, and this is why you’re given an exclusive right, and you can be compensated, and you can license your patent, but you must license it if somebody comes and pays a reasonable fee. What’s a reasonable fee then? It becomes very hard. That’s the rub. So, if we just say you have to make it available for license, that’s easy to evade. You say “Yes, you can license my patent, it’s 40 billion dollars.” Ok, that’s not realistic, you know. On the other hand, if you say you are forced to license any patent drug for anybody who’d pay 10 dollars, it’s like well there’s a whole business model of R&D completely destroyed, because it suddenly can’t say I am gonna spend 100 million developing this drug if I’ve then got to license it to anybody in the world for 10 dollars. That doesn’t make sense.
Gavin: You talked about open innovation and Wikipedia describes open innovation as “a mindset towards innovation that runs counter to the secrecy and siloed mentality of traditional corporate research labs”. What do you think the biggest factor is that would drive that more “open mindset” and why is there a “siloed mentality”?
Jimmy: You have certain companies like Google, which is really quite open and so on. Even Microsoft these days, they fund a lot of open-source projects. But Apple has a completely different culture. If you work at Apple, and tomorrow morning find that Apple has just announced that they’ve created a car that goes on sale next Wednesday and it’s a huge surprise for everybody in the world. You would think, “I work for the coolest company,” because that’s their culture. It’s like “I don’t feel offended that I wasn’t told about this.” If at Wikipedia, we suddenly announce some major new technological feature, and the community hadn’t had input, or we hadn’t had a discussion, it wasn’t open and fully developed, people would be very upset. Because that’s our culture. And both are successful cultures in a way. I just think that’s interesting. It’s just interesting how different companies can have different cultures, both of which can be successful.
Gavin: You talked about global standards and interoperability. Technology, specifically technology IP rights, have become pretty highly politicized these last few years. Do you think that politicization is going to get worse? Is that to the detriment of unified global standards?
Jimmy: Well, it definitely is on all those points, and I do see it getting worse. We have a rise in politicians bashing the internet because it’s convenient for them to do so, but we also have the rise of I would say fragmentation of the internet. So, I can give a personal example from this morning. A friend of mine sent me a story on something that happened where I grew up in Alabama. I hadn’t heard about this. So, I Googled it to find more news stories to learn more about it. But four out of five of the articles that came up, I couldn’t see from here in the UK because a lot of small-town newspapers around the US are blocking connections from Europe because of the European GDPR regulation.
I think they basically decided, we can’t comply with this, it would require a fair amount of work just to understand it, and we just don’t want the risk. That kind of thing is increasing around the world. I think that’s really problematic. The idea of the internet is really that it’s global. Global access to knowledge, global access to information. No government in Europe is saying we are worried about this small-town newspaper in Alabama. But they are collateral damage, certainly for Wikipedia. You want that very active Wikipedia volunteer sitting in Berlin to be able to access historical news archives in the US. If that becomes harder, then it becomes harder to write Wikipedia, and the world is sort of lessened by that.
Gavin: Does it seem to be increasingly hard, when national values and trade interests are so different, and so polarized in many cases, to have a global system – whether it’s on interoperability or standards or access?
Jimmy: Yeah, yeah. It’s interesting. I mean was Donald Trump really concerned about TikTok and the safety of teenagers’ data? I don’t think he actually cared a bit about that, right?
Gavin: He was more concerned about trade and jobs.
Jimmy Yes, but also just sort of domestic PR grandstanding, against the foreigners.” So that goes on, and that's part of humanity. But it does have the potential to do a great deal of damage to the global internet knowledge ecosystem.
Gavin: In reference to Wikipedia, you once urged us to “Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. Based on the current intellectual property rights system, do you think we are closer to that dream, or further away?
Jimmy: It's really hard to say. Clearly there are elements in our current system that I think are problematic. But a lot of people often assume that, because at Wikipedia we and the community give away all our work for free, they think I am gonna be some sort of IP anarchist who’s against all the rules. But I am not. I would say my deeper concern is the opposite, which is actually, what counts as fair use or not is complicated under the law, and not something that an algorithm is going to be able to know. Is this an image that’s being pirated, or is this an image that is used in a way completely permitted by the law for criticism, commentary and discussion? And one of my concerns is, you can pass a law requiring some digital filtering technology. The internet giants can afford that. But what about your small to mid-sized start-up? You are making a higher and higher bar to just get started, which would mean less competition, which would mean entrenching the giants, which is, I am assuming, not what the authors of the legislation were really aiming for.
Gavin: By the time this edition of Transform goes out, there’ll almost certainly be a new Prime Minister in the U.K. If you could grab the new Prime Minister, and in a couple of sentences, try and get across one key thing to them, what would you say to them?
Jimmy: What I would say, is “Before you pass any internet legislation, please come and have a chat with me, because you don’t want to break Wikipedia.”
Gavin: Jimmy, thanks very much.
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