[A2k] Professor Harry Blutstein: Is the end in sight for international copyright laws?

Manon Ress manon.ress at keionline.org
Wed Jan 23 05:21:38 PST 2013

Professor Harry Blutstein: 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
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

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

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.
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Manon Ress
Knowledge Ecology International
manon.ress at keionline.org
tel.: +1 202 332 2670

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