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WIPO Acknowledges Need for IP Balance
Tuesday, October 05 2004 @ 09:00 AM EDT

The Electric Frontier Foundation is reporting some extraordinary news, that WIPO has announced plans to support the public domain and Open Source:

"The United Nation's (UN's) World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) has adopted a 'development agenda' that acknowledges the need for balance in worldwide policy on trademark, copyright, and patents. In the past, WIPO has been roundly resistant to attempts to balance the interests of copyright holders, who make up the majority of WIPO participants, and the public, which had never been represented at the meetings.

"Previous efforts to get WIPO to hold one-day information sessions on alternatives to copyright -- such as the public-domain human genome database, the GPL software license that underpins GNU/Linux, and the Creative Commons project's millions of 'some rights reserved' books, movies, songs, and images -- has been firmly rebuffed, with major WIPO nations applying enormous pressure to see to it that the issue was never brought to the table.

"Now, in the wake of the 'Geneva Declaration' -- a document calling on WIPO to work in the interest of all of its stakeholders, including the public -- WIPO's General Assembly has adopted a 'development agenda,' a kind of lens of public-interest considerations through which the treaty-body will view all future activities."

If you visit the Geneva Declaration page, you will find, scrolling down, some background reading, including a paper published in the Duke Law and Technology Review by James Boyle, "A Manifesto On WIPO and the Future of Intellectual Property." I thought you might like to read a snip of it, on the subject of balance. Professor Boyle is William Neal Reynolds Professor of Law at Duke Law School and the cofounder of the Center for the Study of the Public Domain.

He begins like this:

"Intellectual property laws are the legal sinews of the information age; they affect everything from the availability and price of AIDS drugs, to the patterns of international development, to the communications architecture of the Internet. Traditionally, those laws have been made as state-facilitated contracts among affected industries. To the extent that 'the public interest' ever figured in those discussions, it was assumed to be limited to the eventual ability to purchase the ‘products’ - drugs, films, books - whose creators and distributors receive their incentives from intellectual property rights. Yet intellectual property rights are not ends in themselves. Their goal is to give us a decentralized system of innovation in science and culture: no government agency should pick which books are written or have the sole say over which technologies are developed. Instead, the creation of limited legal monopolies called intellectual property rights gives us a way of protecting and rewarding innovators in art and technology, encouraging firms to produce quality products, and allowing consumers to rely on the identity of the products they purchased. The laws of copyright, patent and trademark are supposed to do just that - at least in some areas of innovation - provided the rights are set at the correct levels, neither too broad nor too narrow."

And he ends with these words:

"The ideas proposed here are not radical. If anything they have a conservative strand - a return to the rational roots of intellectual property rather than an embrace of its recent excesses. Patents, for example, have a restricted term and were always intended to work to fuel the public domain. Copyrights were intended to last only for a limited time, to regulate texts, not criminalize technologies, to facilitate rather than to restrict access. Even the droits d’auteur tradition was built around the assumption that there were social and temporal limitations on the author’s claims; natural right did not mean absolute right. Neither Macaulay and Jefferson, nor Le Chapelier and Rousseau would recognize their ideas in the edifice we have erected today. In the name of authorial and inventive genius, we are creating a bureaucratic system that only a tax-collector or a monopolist could love. But genius is actually less likely to flower in this world, with its regulations, its pervasive surveillance, its privatized public domain and its taxes on knowledge. Even if the system worked exactly as specified, it could not solve some of the most important human problems we face, and it would likely hamper our most important communications technology. And now we foist that system on the world, declaring that anyone who does not have exactly the same legal monopolies as we do is distorting trade. True, WIPO’s power to undo these trends is limited at the moment. Trade negotiations have become the preferred arena for expanding rights still further. But if these trends are to be reversed there will need to be an international, informed, democratic debate about the trajectory we are on. WIPO’s role in that debate is a central one. It should embrace that role, rather than seeking to jump onto the bandwagon of ever-expanding rights."

I hope you have time to read the rest, but if not, at least you have the overview. I have written to WIPO asking for more details, because all I can find on their web site are press releases reflective of their principal members' viewpoint.


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