Hacking Policy Through Innovation, Not Lobbying

As we continue to build The Copia Institute, we’ll be writing a weekly column & newsletter discussing bigger issues around innovation and abundance. These pieces will be cross-posted here on Techdirt, but we invite you to check them out on the new Copia website as well.

One of the first questions that comes up when I first tell people about the Copia Institute, is “how is this different than ‘x’?” with “x” being any number of organizations, from activist groups to trade groups to DC lobbying organizations. And the answer is that we’re not any of those things. In fact, while we know many people in such places, and will likely have opportunities to work with them in certain cases, we’re focused on doing something very different: letting innovation lead the way, rather than policymakers. That’s not to say we’re not interested in policy questions, we’re just looking for ways to innovate solutions to them rather than waiting for policymakers in distant cities to come up with some new regulation.

Over and over again we’ve seen policymakers and people from the policy world show up in Silicon Valley and talk about how entrepreneurs need to spend more time “bridging the gap” between DC and Silicon Valley, or something like that. But, almost inevitably, this isn’t very effective. There are, certainly, connections to be made, but too often the “connection” that policymakers are talking about is getting Silicon Valley to “play the DC game.” And very, very few entrepreneurs and technologists are truly interested in playing that game. To them, it’s the antithesis of why they’re innovators in the first place. They didn’t come to Silicon Valley to change the world just to have to convince a large group of lawmakers (or worse, administrative bureaucrats) to put in place some particular piece of legislation.

They came here to actually innovate.

And this is not to say — as some people like to — that the way to treat policymakers is to ignore them, or just tell them to get out of the way. Rather, we think that we can create the best of all worlds by getting entrepreneurs and technologists and innovators to do what the do best and that means coming up with innovative policy ideas that don’t necessarily involve waiting for policymakers to create some sort of regulation.

We see examples of this innovative “policy without policymakers” all the time — and it’s what helped inspire the creation of Copia in the first place. One example: fifteen years ago, a group of entrepreneurs, academics, lawyers and activists realized that copyright law and the internet did not mix. And, at the same time, they knew that there was no way Congress would get around to real copyright reform that fixed that. So they built a very innovative solution: Creative Commons. It didn’t fix all the problems, but it did create a really useful tool that is widespread today: a very simple licensing mechanism that encouraged content creators to freely and easily license their works, and that allowed the better sharing of information. It has had a profound effect on how content is shared online today — and it did not require Congress to do anything.

Similar examples are found with things like Twitter’s Innovator’s Patent Agreement that prevents any of Twitter’s patents from being used for trolling. Or the recent “license on transfer” (LOT) program that a bunch of tech companies came up with a year ago.

Sure, in the long run, having good copyright or patent reform would help even more, but that clearly wasn’t happening in the short run, so innovators did what they do best: they innovated solutions to help out in the meantime.

Copia’s main focus is on bringing together innovators, entrepreneurs, and technologists and looking at the big opportunities and challenges they face — and looking for ways to innovate solutions that don’t require lobbying and waiting around for policymakers to negotiate and bicker and trade. Instead, we’re focused on getting actual stuff done — creating useful programs that can accomplish things today.

That doesn’t mean we’ll sit out legislative or policy debates. We’ll still be actively involved in those, and making sure that our members are well aware of what’s happening. But we’ll let the existing trade groups, activists and lobbyists focus on those battles most of the time. We’re going to keep looking for ways that we can actually get stuff done in a way that Silicon Valley appreciates: by innovating, rather than waiting for someone to give us permission.

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