The Accidental Pirate

Royce Wee
Director, Head of Global Public Policy, Alibaba Group


Royce Wee is a public policy practitioner, who is well-versed in law and regulation, especially the intersection of law and technology. He has developed policies and regulations on ICT infrastructure, resilience, competition and consumer protection matters. He is experienced in data protection and regulation, including international trends and developments as well as the development of data-related policies and legislation. He has also formulated policies and frameworks to facilitate the introduction and adoption of new technologies such as 5G and AI in a sustainable, inclusive and trusted manner.

We all stand on the shoulder of giants; ideas want to be free; nothing is new under the sun.

This is just a sampling of a few popular phrases to purportedly justify a blasé attitude towards IP rights for some people.

What is IP anyway, and why is it deserving of protection? IP refers to creations of the mind which can be protected by law. It is essentially a state-sanctioned monopoly granted to an inventor or creator comprising exclusive rights for a defined period of time. Key categories of IP include trademarks, patents, designs, copyright, and geographical indications.

It is too bad that sweat of the brow is usually disregarded. Instead, what is cherished is originality, novelty and industrial application. In other words, the sweat that judges look for is usually on the invisible side of the brow.  

One oft-cited policy justification for the protection of IP is to incentivise and reward inventions and creations. Hence a strong IP regime is seen by many corporations, R&D outfits, investors, authors, designers, inventors and creators as a sine qua non for a thriving business and innovation ecosystem.

But a delicate balance has to be struck if we are not to lose our artistic and creative souls. If an IP regime is too focused on the "defensive" aspects of innovation, it compromises the wider public interest of society’s ability to have equitable access to products and services, and use/re-use existing creations to build new works and inventions.

The "offensive" aspects of innovation range from the flippant (the late Virgil Abloh's 3% rule for fashion) to life-and-death situations (IP waivers to facilitate access to Covid-19 vaccines), and everything in-between.

A useful reminder is that the protection of IP is not an end in itself. In striking the right balance between the "defensive" and "offensive" interests, it is important to keep one's eye on the larger, ultimate goals of IP to promote and incentivise the innovative capacity of a society, and the transfer, dissemination and use of new works, inventions and technologies to meet the public interest. This balance is not fixed immemorial, and also varies across borders, as different countries have different historical contexts, cultural values, and development needs and priorities.

It is also salient to overlay this with the chequered and contested history of IP. Most states steal, rob and plunder IP belonging to others until they become an IP powerhouse. They then glibly change their tune to become the newest protector and champion of IP rights on the block. Fortunately, the mercantilist, hypocrisy and cynicism of such conduct is largely attenuated due to societies’ general historical amnesia. We remember to forget the past, only to eventually forget to remember. Of course, you don’t have to remember anything in the eternal present suffused with Mammon’s celebration of IP rights, provided that you first eject your internal designs onto the unsuspecting world.

After a consumption of this pabulum, whither desiderata?

We end by returning to the start. Who do you see in the mirror?

Let him who is without sin cast the first stone. In the meantime, let us all prepare by gathering our stones.