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Imagining the cities of tomorrow – in which technology is used to enhance quality of life and increase human connectedness and well-being – means recognizing that the technologies embedded in smart cities are capable of wondrous benefits so long as the intellectual property (IP) rights that protect them are governed by rules that place the public interest at the forefront.

We must continue to remind ourselves – and to challenge those who argue otherwise - that IP rights are not ‘property’ rights like any other. By design, they are and must remain limited in breadth and scope consistent with their foundational policy frameworks. IP has never been about privileging rights holders to the exclusion of a broader public interest.

For example, the policy behind providing exclusivity to inventors through patents or creators through copyright is to encourage them to disseminate their knowledge and to introduce something useful to society. These forms of IP have never been about rewarding inventors and creators for the mere fact of having invented or created. Patent and copyright laws place limits on the monopolies they confer – for every right granted to the right holder, there is a commensurate obligation to advance societal goals. A limited 20-year term on patents ensures that once the patent expires, everyone is free to use and improve on the invention. In the case of copyright, limitations and exceptions, like fair dealing, recognize the balance that must be struck so that others can build on the protected creativity without fear of repercussion. In Canada, the law protects trade secrets and confidential information not because they are forms of property. Instead, the law upholds the obligation of trust that arises when a recipient agrees to keep valuable commercial information secret. The law steps in to punish broken promises, not to defend property. We forget these normative policy principles at our peril.

IP is not – and should not be – about individual property rights without any meaningful social benefit. It is not– and should not be – about rent-seeking above all other considerations. It is not – and should never be – about concentrating control and wealth in the hands of the few, especially in the civic setting.

We need to recognize the stewardship obligations of our public institutions in relation to the IP generated through smart city initiatives and integrate the language of public trust into our IP discourse. The smart city means being smart about IP by putting IP in its place. We must develop binding IP protocols for civic spaces that harness the benefits of IP while mitigating its harms. I am calling for socially responsible IP - the development of an IP ethic consistent with democratic principles - that situates the well-being of citizens and communities as its core concern.