Protection Of Intellectual Property Assets : A Biological Metaphor


The New York International Festival of the Arts
December 13, 1994

Ladies and Gentlemen 

I have a little surprise for you ! This is not Joel de Rosnay talking to you right now! It is his virtual clone, down-loaded from Paris at 156 megabits on a fibre optics ATM line, and projected by a 3D holographic camera on stage ! 

This just might be the way somebody would start a conference 20 years from now. It is all technically possible. Also, there would be no more intellectual property rights anymore, but rather "biological" property rights. I'm telling you all this because technology, as you know, is progressing at such a fast pace that we really have to keep up with it and try to anticipate some of its outcomes. 

This is exactly what we do at the Cité des Sciences all the time. In this vast Science Museum we constantly come up against these kind of problems. We welcome 6 million visitors a year. We have local rights for images and software and we are hoping to move to the Web on the Internet. So we have to negociate every right with each creator. a very tedious and complex undertaking. 

As an author, and director, I am personally confronted with this problem. For instance, I was the creator of a programme called " The Bionautes", a voyage made inside the human body, which was shown at the Cité for a year. We then wanted to put it on a CD-ROM, and then on the Internet. So we had to get recognition of all the rights once again. This is the kind of problem we come up against very often. 

At the Cité des Sciences, we also monitor new technologies. Imagine that in 5 or l0 years from now people will have a very powerful portable computer with direct access to the networks, not only through a phone socket in the wall, but through radio waves at very high speeds. This information could be copied on very tiny CDs, which could be reinscriptable and we could re-use that information at will. In this way everybody could be transformed into a potential thief as he would have been in the old ways of protection information. Of course, I would prefer to consider these people as potential co-creators, rather than potential thieves ! 

I would now like to propose to you a model on which to consider and reflect. A model which might help us to protect the rights of these future co-creators. 

The model is biology. This may seem strange to some of you, the relationship between biology and the digital world. Yet I believe that they share a lot of things in common which can lead us to some solutions to problems confronting us today. Let me give you three examples. 

The first example, a universal language. Biology has a universal language which is called DNA, strings of information, or proteins attached sequentially in a given order. The digital world also uses strings of electronic data encoded to manipulate strings of characters. You type out a keyword on a data base, and it pulls out many references. In this there is continuity between the biological and the digital world : a universal language. 

The second similarity is the reproduction mechanism. As we all know, all biological systems are basically reproduction machines. Templates, catalysts and polymerases are made to copy molecules. The modern digital world is a macro-reproduction machine. Faxes, disks and diskettes, camcorders and copiers are made to copy. Information wants to be copied, and we restrict it for good reasons. 

Finally, another similarity is evolution. Biology changes over a long process of mutation, selection, crossover and recombination. Manipulation of information is the key of biology. Biology invents through constant manipulation. In the digital world it is becoming more and more easy to copy and transform through a process of evolution. 

In other words, the biological world is a totally encrypted world. This is why is works. This is why it allows diversity and permits mutations and very specific recognition. Also we must remember that in the biological world a molecule is at the same time the message, the messenger and the code. A hormone, for instance, performs all these functions. It represents a signal able to trigger a response on a receptor. Even though there are many hormones circulating in the blood, each one will be able to trigger a specific reponse. 

Peptides are sequences of codes which can be spliced away, but which will allow strings of bigger molecules, the proteins, to be assembled at a given place, even if they take different routes. It looks like the Internet protocol. TCP/IP is about the same thing. You cut strings of characters into pieces, put in electronic addresses, and through re-routing it goes through many places and reassembles itself. 

We can then use such models to think about the coding and encryption mecanisms that we would need in our digital information society. This is allready taking place. 

There is already a great deal of bridging between the digital and biological world. Let me give you a few examples. 

Scientists are more and more capable of manipulating an enormous amount of parallel codes "in silico". That means that in the inside of the computer we can mimic digital evolution. This is called "genetic algorithms" and it allows us to generate a very large quantity of information and keep track of it through different codes. 

Another example is called "combinatorial chemistry". It helps make billions of molecules and keep track of each of them simultaneously by using little pieces of code, DNA or other molecules, by tagging them specifically. 

And finally, as a last example, is the use of immunological principles to fight against computer viruses. Instead of stopping them from entering into the system, the new idea is to let the system develop digital immunological defenses. If a new piece of code comes in - the virus - it will not be recognized as part of the sytem and immediately localized and destroyed. 

Now let us move on to some possible solutions for the future by using new technology and our capability of tracking in parallel massive amounts of codes and information. Let us consider a few examples, which are quite simple to imagine. They can be applied to the problems of authors and intellectual property rights. But I am not going to talk about intellectual property rights, rather I want to talk about intellectual property assets. I believe that an asset can create revenues and enhance itself. Our challenge in the future is to enhance these assets and not merely protect the rights 

My first example envisages an object which will move among people (like my molecules) carrying a message, being the messenger and carrying a code. This object, is for instance, a CD-ROM. You receive it free at home. It contains a lot of information. You start to use it. It will give you a certain amount of that information. You play with it and then it stops ! The next step is to use the networks work to get the code which will give you access to all the ramaining coded tracks. If you want to go further, the tracks are protected. So out pops a self stamped E-mail box, to which you only have to add your credit card number ! It will then go through the E-mail and come back minutes later with a little icon. You place that icon on the icon of your disk and it will unlock all the tracks. That is one way of making you pay once, that's one possibility. 

Another possiblity is to follow the evolution of an artists work. In general, what is important in an artist's or a creator's work is not only the finished product. It is the process which is unique, the way in which the work has been created and transformed into the final product. This can be traced by applying to the first original a time code (similar to the time codes that are now being used in the video industry). A complex, encrypted time code. This permits the artist's work to be traced anywhere, and, like DNA, even through other transformations. DNA is a record of what has been done, from bacteria to people. So you see, there are other ways, electronic ways, of tracking down the evolutionary process which is unique to a creator. 

Another approach is to make people pay when they use and electronic media. Let us imagine that you distribute software. Imagine that you are allowed to copy it and to reuse it. By doing that, you transform a liability into an asset. People will copy it and recopy it a million times. But, for the networks, when you use that software in your computer, that computer could be considered as a little broadcasting station with you as the unique listener. Each time you use it, a code is sent to a given account which is encrypted, the cost calculated and the account debited. As you see, there are technical and electronic ways of protecting copyright and making sure that information wanting to be copied can be copied : everytime a person uses it, he must pay. 

Finally, there is now a possibilty of an electronic signature, which is very clever. It is based on codes, like the RSA codes. This means that if I send a message to a correspondant from France, for instance, I will encrypt it on his public key, and he will then read it with his private key. But the beauty of this system is that if I write an original message with my private key, everyone can read it through their public keys. But there is only one person in the world who could have written that message - myself. The problem now is to have a universal agreement for this type of relationship, and these types of keys. But technically, this system is almost trivial. 

It is very important to keep the balance between the virtual and the real world. Emotions and sensations give added meanings to life. Let us not forget what Ernest Boyer said in his wonderful lunchtime address - wisdom.


Joël de Rosnay 

Director of Strategy

Cité des Sciences et de l'Insdustrie – La Villette – Paris – France 

If you make use of this article, please quote the original reference



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