World Intellectual Property Organization

IP and Software: Seminar Explores Emerging Trends and Prospects

July 2007

The 2004 tsunami disaster impelled Sri Lanka’s open source software community to develop a tailored information management system for humanitarian relief operations. (Photo by Sarvodaya Shramadana)
The 2004 tsunami disaster impelled Sri Lanka’s open source software community to develop a tailored information management system for humanitarian relief operations. (Photo by Sarvodaya Shramadana)

In the wake of the devastating tsunami which hit South East Asia in 2004, the government of Sri Lanka struggled to coordinate the mammoth relief effort. As more and more governments, international organizations and volunteers joined crisis operations to locate missing people and distribute aid, the basic problem of managing information became critical to the humanitarian effort. An urgent solution was needed, which would be fast, flexible and freely accessible.

To the rescue

Enter Sahana, described by its developers as the world’s first disaster management system based on free and open source software. Sanjiva Weerawarana, who led the development of the Sahana system, delivered a vivid account of the project to a rapt audience at WIPO’s recent regional seminar on Intellectual Property and Software in the 21st Century in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Describing the “tremendous information management problem” which arose from the efforts of some 1,300 organizations to support hundreds of thousands of displaced people, Mr. Weerawarana recounted how Sri Lanka’s open source community pooled their talents and knowledge, and worked flat out to develop a solution. The new software was up and running in just three weeks.

After its successful deployment during the tsunami disaster, the project was developed further for global use. The award-winning system now offers a secure web portal with applications for tracking missing people, connecting organizations, matching donations to requests, reporting on the distribution of aid and services, tracking temporary shelters, and generally providing transparency to groups working in a humanitarian disaster. Available for free download and customization under a GNU General Public License, Sahana has been used extensively by UN and humanitarian agencies during recent crises including the 2005 Pakistan earthquake, the 2006 Southern Leyte mudslide disaster in the Philippines, and the 2006 Jogjarkata earthquake in Indonesia.

Common ground

Mr. Weerawarana heads the Lanka Software Foundation, a non-profit, open source software development organization. He was invited to address the WIPO regional Seminar in order to share his perspective as a proponent of open source solutions. In a central session devoted to Business Models and Licensing in the Software Industry, he was joined on the podium by Stephen Mutkoski, Microsoft’s Asia Pacific regional director for interoperability and innovation. Mr. Mutkoski, an intellectual property (IP) lawyer and expert in software licensing issues, manages regional activities and programs for Microsoft which aim at “creating neutral government policies in relation to software procurement, standards development and adoption, and related issues.”

Participants expressed surprise at the extent of common ground identified between the proponents of open source and of proprietary systems.

In his presentation, Mr. Mutkoski demonstrated clearly how business models based on proprietary software could be successful in a developing country such as Sri Lanka. Participants at the Seminar expressed surprise at the extent of common ground identified between the perspectives of the two speakers. Both emphasized the advantages of the co-existence of open source and proprietary systems, and agreed as to the importance of synergies developed in mixed platforms. Representatives of several Asian governments also shared their national experiences with regard to software licensing based on both proprietary and open source models. All agreed that it was essential to match the business strategy with the licensing model chosen. Software piracy was identified as a crucial common concern.

Participants explored which IP-related software strategies may best suit their national economic, social and cultural development needs. (Courtesy of Richard Owens)

Protection and standards 

The overall objective of the Seminar, which was organized in cooperation with the Sri Lankan National Intellectual Property Office, was to update participants on international developments concerning the application and exploitation of IP rights in the field of software. Aiming for a balanced and practical approach, the Seminar explored a range of issues and market scenarios, illustrating each of them with current business experiences.

The opening session covered fundamental questions of software protection through IP rights, particularly in relation to economic development. Speakers compared the universally accepted use of copyright for protecting software with the more controversial use of patents, where a variety of approaches are taken in national legislation worldwide. These range between express patentability, and express exclusion from patentability, of software, with the middle ground occupied by a more modulated acceptance of patents on “computer implemented inventions.” In an animated debate, participants discussed the relative advantages and disadvantages of the different approaches, and examined the concept and patentability criteria of computer implemented inventions.

The development of standards in the software field was the focus of another session in the Seminar. Mr. Goh Seow Hiong, Asia director of the Business Software Alliance (BSA), stressed the importance of interoperability, usability, accessibility and mobility, as key factors driving software development. Participants exchanged views on a range of IP-related issues with regard to development and implementation of standards in the software industry.

The Seminar also compared the role of public authorities and private companies in software development. Speakers from the Software Copyright Committee (SOCOP) of the Republic of Korea described their experience in using registration, public awareness-raising activities, mediation and other means to facilitate software protection. SOCOP is an example of a unified public body specially created to deal with the complexities involved in protecting and developing software. Other countries reported on their own national experiences, and a common trend was identified in the need to develop specialized and comprehensive public initiatives. Mr. Anuruddha Pebotuwa, for example, detailed the activities of the ICT Agency of Sri Lanka in promoting incentives for software development in areas such as taxation, public funding and government procurement.


There are few aspects of life in the 21st century which are not touched by information technologies. Decisions by governments on the application, licensing and enforcement of IP rights with regard to software have far-reaching implications and cut across multiple aspects of public policy-making, from telecommunications, to education, to economic development. Through fora such as this one, WIPO seeks to facilitate the exchange of expertise and experiences on the IP-related aspects of information and communications technologies, in order to assist Member States in identifying those IP strategies which may best suit their economic, social and cultural development needs.

The WIPO Asia Pacific Regional Seminar on Intellectual Property and Software in the 21st Century: Trends, Issues, Prospects, took place in Colombo from May 29 to 30, 2007, organized in cooperation with the National Intellectual Property Office (NIPO) of the Government of Sri Lanka.

Acknowledgements: Richard Owens and Victor Vasquez, Copyright and Related Rights Sector, WIPO.

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