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RFID Research

(Mostly cross-posted today at Pittsblog.)

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has a story today touting the launch of an RFID product development center at Pitt.

Pitt’s move is interesting, more for what it doesn’t do than for what it does. Even though the project website doesn’t have much detail, the P-G’s story reports that it involves faculty from various engineering disciplines, the School of Medicine, and the School of Information Sciences.

Alas: Where are the lawyers? (Full disclosure: I had never heard about Pitt’s RFID research until I read about the Center launch in this morning’s paper.)

The policy debate over RFID technology is mostly old news. This is product development now. But the privacy, data security, and IP problems lurking here haven’t gone away, and none of those appear to be part of the agenda at Pitt.

Moreover, the legal issues aren’t simply of the “how to protect consumers from evil RFID” variety. There’s a huge upside to the RFID concept, particularly as the technology evolves. And law can help. Law has already spent a lot of time exploring the legal implications of computer networks, trying to design enforceable legal structures to make distributed computing more effective. Open source licensing, anyone?

So imagine, for example, that the tagging doesn’t come from the top down (manufacturers tag; consumers buy), but that it comes from the bottom up (consumers tag; consumers share data). Think blogging. Think cell phones. Think bar code readers. Now combine them. Then take a look, for example, at a project at Microsoft Research called Project AURA, headed by a sociologist named Marc Smith. AURA is difficult to describe in a blog post; it’s a little bit like a Wikipedia for things. It’s a very, very cool concept.

Below, Brett posted about a search for data regarding the effects of the patent system on universities’ research priorities. In a sense, this little episode is a data point in how research agendas get warped. Pitt’s RFID program appears to be focused on making the world of Del Monte and GlaxoSmithKline a better place. That’s OK; those companies have a lot of money in the pot. But I’m not sure that this is really an example of IPRs driving an allocation of research dollars that otherwise would go to more “basic” and less product-oriented research. Pitt already has RFID patents, so I suspect that this sort of program would go on anyway. If there’s a problem here, it’s not that research priorities are too concerned with technology law, but that they aren’t sufficiently concerned with the breadth of relevant law and policy. I know that it’s self-interested to say so, but in a lot of ways inter- and multi-disciplinary university-based research would be better off with more law involved, not less.