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Blog: The editor baffles an IP lawyer

I was at the Institute of Directors yesterday for coffee with a new contact. He may be writing something for the magazine sometime but we were basically getting to know each other – one of the big perks of the job is that you get to meet a lot of interesting people.

He was a lawyer and worked a lot in intellectual property – IP for short. We weren’t officially on the record and he had no time to research anything I might happen to ask him so I won’t name him, it wouldn’t be fair.

So I pulled out a question that came up in one of the Professional Outsourcing Magazine (now Intelligent Sourcing) dining club events, this one in New York a couple of years ago.

There’s a lovely moment if you’re a journalist when you know you’ve got someone with a question. Sometimes you’ve caught them in a lie; in this instance the guy was completely open and transparent. The other times you can get someone with a difficult question is when they realise they’ve never been asked it before, but it’s important and you both go away thinking about it. I love these occasions because you both learn something.

The question was: “Artificial intelligence will be able to improve upon itself and make its own enhancements. If it does so and ends up identifiably different, who owns this enhancement?”

His initial reaction was amusement, and “whoever bought the software”. Then I pointed out that a lot of software is licensed under SaaS terms, so the host and the client might have an equal claim.

He didn’t have a ready answer. The best guess is that there will need to be precedents set, possibly challenged in court (he wasn’t one of those lawyers who saw dollar signs immediately the phrase came up – far from it, he was opposed to unnecessary red tape) and established internationally.

“Internationally” is of course a very big word here, and it’s one that is going to evolve. The new US president has more on his mind than IP at the moment but it’s easy to imagine a new executive order about IP in the USA (as long as such an order is flagged as pure speculation at this stage). It’s not difficult to conceive of the EU taking a different tack, as it does with some of the niceties around copyright (in the US you have to assert copyright, in the EU it’s automatic).

The UK is going to be a special case. The plan until this week, and going forward depending on the results of the general election, was to adopt every EU law into the “great repeal Bill” (so called because it doesn’t repeal a thing) and then replace them where necessary, one by one. Whether the UK adopts forthcoming EU legislation during any transition period will be anybody’s guess for the moment, and the issue has been complicated by the sudden declaration of a snap election. It looks very much as though the existing government will win by a landslide but if you’d asked me this time last year about the likelihood of Brexit and a Trump administration…let’s just say predictions have a habit of catching up with unwary commentators just lately. This AI issue could be affected.

Add China and the CEE blocs and you begin to see just how much work there is to do in making this thing coherent. The time to start acting is presumably now, before the issue is complicated by too many conflicting cases.

Unfortunately back in the real world, as I said earlier, Trump and the rest of the politicians have a lot more on their mind. I have a feeling this one’s going to run for a while.

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