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Is the end in sight for international copyright laws?

Late last year, the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) held what might be its most a productive meeting for some time. In Geneva, delegates from about 160 countries moved one step closer to…

Moves to remove copyright restrictions on books for the visually impaired are being opposed by big business - which fear exclusions could be extended to other areas of public interest. Flickr\JasonPearce

Late last year, the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) held what might be its most a productive meeting for some time. In Geneva, delegates from about 160 countries moved one step closer to ending a worldwide famine. But it is by no means a done deal. Powerful corporate interests oppose the treaty that is designed to overcome this famine, because they are worried that any international agreement might eat into their profits.

This famine not only affects people in poor countries but those in rich countries, although less acutely. In developed countries, only one out of every 20 books is available to Visually Impaired People (VIPs), while in poor countries, only one book out of every 100 is published in braille or as a talking book. Like all famines, this one has its consequences. Because they do not have access to information, it limits the access VIPs have to education, reduces their access to jobs and downgrades them to second-class citizens.

Although the treaty will help an estimated 256 million blind and partially sighted people in the world access books by removing barriers contained in international copyright laws, the book famine is virtually unsighted in the mainstream media.

By legalising an exception to the international copyright laws, it will allow VIPs easy access to copyrighted material. Manon Ress is a policy analyst at Knowledge Ecology International, a Washington, DC-based human rights lobby group that helped spearhead the treaty. She welcomes this precedent. “This treaty would be the first one that is not done for the copyright owner, but for the user of the works — for the blind to make a copyrighted work accessible.”

Opposition to the treaty has come from both European and American companies. These companies range from major software makers and book publishers to motion picture and music companies. The Association of American Publishers, which represents about 300 publishers, claims the treaty is unnecessary. They want VIPs to rely on the free market, where the profit motive will provide an incentive for publishers to make such products available.

But industry’s objections have little to do with lost profits; the market is relatively small. Their real concern is that this treaty creates a dangerous precedent where international copyright laws could be relaxed in other cases where a clear public interest exists. Brad Huber, senior director of the US Chamber of Commerce, states, “The treaty … creates a bad precedent by loosening copyright restrictions, instead of tightening them as every previous copyright treaty has done.”

There is no justification for looking to international law to strengthen intellectual property rights. What seems to have been forgotten is that these laws were originally introduced in the eighteenth century as a necessary evil.

The law establishes temporary monopolies, to reward creators to produce new work, but these rewards are to be kept to a minimum so as not to place unnecessary rents on the public. Unfortunately, lobbyists have dominated international negotiations, and substantially increased the rents the industry has secured, with the public interest no longer a consideration.

The WIPO negotiations are a rare exception, and industry lobbyists have thankfully been losing ground. First, the European Union backtracked and now supports a binding treaty. This leaves the US as the only country prevaricating on what position to take.

The Obama Administration is playing a subtle game. On one hand it does not wish to be the only country blocking access of affordable written material to the blind; this would not be a good look. On the other hand, it does not want to offend powerful publishers, many of them US companies.

As a sop to this powerful lobby, the US had argued that in return for concessions to the blind, it would expect other countries to support its efforts to strengthen international copyright laws.

“Indeed, as we work with countries to establish consensus on proper, basic exceptions within copyright law, we will ask countries to work with us to improve the enforcement of copyright,” Justin Hughes, a Department of Commerce senior adviser, told WIPO. “This is part and parcel of a balanced international system of intellectual property.”

All signs are positive that when WIPO next meets in Marrakesh (Morocco) in June this year, it will end the book famine. But looking beyond that date, expect industry lobbyists to continue their onward march to extend IP privileges in other areas, with the support of major powers like the US, regardless of the public interest.