Sections

Services

Information

UK United Kingdom

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.

Join the conversation

17 Comments sorted by

  1. Sophie Masson

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Copyright protection is not just a 'necessary evil' and it certainly does not just benefit 'industry', much as it might look good to paint copyright as benefiting only big business. It benefits principally individuals-- those who created the work, the authors who are at the beginning of the chain. Authors have never been against access to their works by blind and sight-impaired people: most of us have freely given our permission for works to be available in Braille and talking books, without any financial compensation whatsoever. There was already the possibility in existing copyright laws to do that.

    report
    1. Adam Jasper

      Lecturer in the Department of Design, Architecture and Building at University of Technology, Sydney

      In reply to Sophie Masson

      "[Copyright protection] benefits principally individuals-- those who created the work, the authors who are at the beginning of the chain"

      If that was true, then the majority of all copyright fees would be disbursed to living authors. This strikes me as unlikely. Does anyone have any hard figures on the proportion of copyright royalties paid to copyright owners who are also themselves the authors of the owned works?

      Also, Dr Blutstein, can we have a reference for this: "The [18th C] law establishes temporary monopolies [...] but these rewards are to be kept to a minimum so as not to place unnecessary rents on the public." I know it's commonly accepted, but it's not clear to me that there was a general consensus around the public benefit argument in the 18th century. Or was public benefit a trojan horse even then? Any good histories on copyright to recommend?

      report
    2. Harry Blutstein

      Adjunct Professor, School of Global Studies, Social Science and Planning at RMIT University

      In reply to Adam Jasper

      Sorry Adam, I didn't see the reply button when I responded to your question. Please see my response above.

      report
    3. f cyniana

      logged in via email @sharklasers.com

      In reply to Adam Jasper

      It does too benefit individuals. Your point about where the fees go is immaterial. Many companies pay the artist a wage and then sell the result. The fees may technically go to the company, but that's just because they're paid to the artists as wages.

      report
  2. Harry Blutstein

    Adjunct Professor, School of Global Studies, Social Science and Planning at RMIT University

    In answer to Adam Jasper query - Thomas Babington Macaulay, a free trade politician addressed the House of Commons in 1841, where he explained (in some length), “The principle of copyright is this. It is a tax on readers for the purpose of giving a bounty to writers. The tax is an exceedingly bad one; it is a tax on one of the most innocent and most salutary of human pleasures; and never let us forget, that a tax on innocent pleasures is a premium on vicious pleasures. I admit, however, the necessity…

    Read more
  3. David Hardie

    logged in via Facebook

    It's always interesting that the mantra from industry is one of 'less regulation' or 'less red tape' and/or 'we live in a global economy' etc. Except when it comes to things like copyright. In that case they are all for regulation, strong government etc etc.

    There is no principle. Only self interest.

    report
  4. Sophie Masson

    logged in via LinkedIn

    In reply to Adam Jasper: I do not have figures, but the principle is very much that copyright fees are first and foremost intended to be distributed to the creator of the work in question, with some exceptions: see this link here:
    http://www.copyright.com.au/get-information/about-copyright/who-owns-copyright
    Most self-employed authors do not assign copyright to publishers or anyone else. It may be a different situation in academia or for staff journalists.

    report
    1. Harry Blutstein

      Adjunct Professor, School of Global Studies, Social Science and Planning at RMIT University

      In reply to Sophie Masson

      The problem with copyright is that it establishes a government-sanctioned monopoly. So while authors certainly are compensated, the publishers can set whatever price they like for a book. If it is a school text or essential reference book, they can use this monopoly to set whatever price they like. We see that with peer-reviewed journals, where obscene profits are being made. For more see http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2012/apr/22/academic-publishing-monopoly-challenged

      report
  5. Shine Lawyers

    Shine Lawyers

    A blind persons rights to access information should be the same as any other persons rights, but this clearly isn't the case. Perhaps it should be a mandate for publishers to publish at least one version accessible by VIP's the world over and make it equal for all.

    report
  6. Tim Scanlon

    Debunker

    As long as the artist gets paid then there is no issue.

    But Harry, are you seriously saying that no-one currently produces books for the blind market? Is there no-one willing to take up the market rights to produce books? Is this just a matter of profitability? If so, I'd have thought tech innovations would be more relevant.

    Selling copyright to the various markets is a large chunk of author revenue. The author already gets SFA per book, making it nothing doesn't encourage them to write another book.

    report
    1. Byron Smith
      Byron Smith is a Friend of The Conversation.

      PhD candidate in Christian Ethics at University of Edinburgh

      In reply to Tim Scanlon

      "As long as the artist gets paid then there is no issue."

      If there are companies that rent seek unfairly and disproportionately on top of what the artist receives, then there is an issue.

      And even more importantly, the most pressing issues involving copyright involve works created for free and donated by their creators to companies who make huge profits from them. I'm talking about academic journal articles and open access.

      report
    2. Harry Blutstein

      Adjunct Professor, School of Global Studies, Social Science and Planning at RMIT University

      In reply to Tim Scanlon

      The major problem is not in countries like Australia, but in developing countries were international copyright laws place barriers in the way of importing braille books. Because sharing Braille books across borders is illegal, someone in Ghana cannot access a (relatively inexpensive) Braille book from the US. In addition, the complexities of identifying right holders, or difficulties in obtaining responses from right holders, are obstacles to obtaining rights to produce braille versions of books.

      report
    3. Tim Scanlon

      Debunker

      In reply to Harry Blutstein

      Thanks Harry, that clears it up for me. I was thinking this was a case of no-one having the interest in actually taking up the rights and producing books.

      I know first hand that the US market is an odd one. Author's publishers will release a book in the US and it won't be allowed to be sold anywhere else, but they also won't sell the rights or make it international. As much as anything, I think that this is because a lot of US publishers don't know or care about anything other than the US market.

      report
    4. Tim Scanlon

      Debunker

      In reply to Byron Smith

      Byron, I agree on the peer reviewed journals. Free content, free editing, that they then charge for has always seemed a bit rich for my liking.

      But then again, there used to be large costs involved in journal publishing. Now that the physical medium is pretty much dead, it is time for journals to be open access.

      report
  7. f cyniana

    logged in via email @sharklasers.com

    The article seems to focus on the profits of creators but it ignores the profits made by the delivery and discovery companies like Mega or Google. They're also raking in billions and they desperately want to make sure that they can continue to keep access to the content they need without sharing any of their billions with the people who did the hard work in the first place.

    I've seen these companies hiding behind the blind people and using them as pawns. There are, for instance, plenty of good…

    Read more
  8. eikoku

    logged in via Twitter

    Which software companies have opposed the Treaty?

    report
    1. Harry Blutstein

      Adjunct Professor, School of Global Studies, Social Science and Planning at RMIT University

      In reply to eikoku

      Opposition is being channeled through industry associations like the Software & Information Industry Association. Its members include IBM, Oracle, Google and Cisco Systems.

      report