02 May 2006

Will WIPO Wipe the Floor?

This is how the world ends, not with a bang - not with a clash of titans - but with a whimper, in an obscure WIPO committee. The committee in question rejoices in the moniker "U.N. World Intellectual Property Organization's Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights Committee". And this is how the report on the EFF's site lays out the effects of the current draft of its work:

The treaty would give broadcasters, cablecasters, and potentially webcasters, broad new 50 year rights to control transmissions over the Internet, irrespective of the copyright status of the transmitted material. It also requires countries to provide legal protection for broadcaster technological protection measures.

Essentially it would be a huge win for the major content owners, a huge win for the status quo, and a huge win for IP maximalists. As this piece from Boing Boing explains, those IP maximalists are largely in the US, and the proposals in this treaty are largely driven by their agenda of locking down all forms of content, everywhere in the world, in the belief that it will increase their profits, even if it will chill all kinds of creative expression in the process.

Nothing new there, then. But what is notable is how the battle is being taken behind the scenes - not in public forums where alternative viewpoints can be aired, and the erroneous logic of the proposal refuted - but in the dark, rank, chummy world of deadly-tedious drafting committees, where every trick in the book can be used to out-manoeuvre those fighting to defend creative freedom.

The treaty in question is a case in point. As the EFF report on the moves explains:

Webcasting is now back in the treaty, after spending last year in a separate "working paper" because the majority of countries opposed its inclusion in 2004. Despite many counties' opposition again in 2005, it’s been included in the treaty as a non-mandatory Appendix. Countries that sign the treaty have the option – at any time -- to grant webcasters the same exclusive rights given to broadcasters and cablecasters by depositing a notice with WIPO.

At the same time, some of the key proposals to balance the impact of the new treaty have been removed from the new draft treaty text (the Draft Basic Proposal) and relegated to a new separate "Working Paper". For instance, the alternative that the treaty not include the contentious Technological Protection Measure obligations is not in the Draft Basic Proposal, but has been sidelined to the Draft Working Paper.

Unfortunately, it is hard to see who is going to stop this. As more and more battles are won at the national level, so the fight over content moves up the stack, to supra-national bodies that wield immense power, are subject to little or no oversight, and which are largely aligned with the interests of the already-rich and the already-powerful against anybody who would like to share a little of that money and power.

Update 1: The EFF reports that webcasting is now out of the main treaty again, but that the threat in the longer-term remains.

Update 2: Here's a good report by James Love on where things now stand (via On the Commons).

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