November 18, 2004 | By Cory Doctorow

WIPO: EFF statement on "limitations and exceptions"

Tomorrow, I'm scheduled to take the floor and give an "intervention" (WIPO-speak for "talking") on a killer proposal from Chile for a harmonized set of limitations and exceptions to benefit the disabled, educators and archivists. What this means is that every country would have a core set of public rights in copyright that you could count on wherever you were. F'rinstance, in the USA, you're allowed to convert a book to Braille without the author's permission, but not so in many other countries. If you pick up a Braille book in New York on your way to Madrid, will you be breaking the law when you land? What if you're exporting them to the Ivory Coast? A unified set of limitations and exceptions (that acted as a minimum set of public rights in every country) would be the first public-interest project undertaken by WIPO -- let's hope they do it!

It is in the nature of archiving, education and the provision of services to the disabled to be cooperative. Unlike commercial, competitive enterprises where labor may be replicated -- and charged for -- many times over; nonprofit public interest work to distribute a joint effort as widely as possible. Exceptions and limitations to copyright's exclusive rights are protection for those who teach from, make accessible, and archive copyrighted works.

The advent of the Internet has thus proved an enormous boon to these organizations. For example, the "digital proofreaders" group has been known to scan and edit thousands of pages of public domain printed material in a single day, with the intention of making it available to the public. Other projects like the Internet Archive -- which is the largest collection of human knowledge ever assembled -- and Project Gutenberg, which makes tens of thousands of books available to the public, likewise rely on international volunteer effort from every corner of the globe.

So it is that these entities need to have the ability to know, to a certainty, whether the work of one can be lawfully built upon by another. They must know whether a work scanned in to give access to the blind in Canada can be lawfully archived in Europe. They must know whether a page scanned in Australia can be translated into French in Quebec and communicated to the Ivory Coast and Haiti. They must know whether a document included in a course-pack at MIT can be lawfully utilized by an educator at the Central European University in Budapest.

This is coherent with the development agenda: these entities labor to improve the lot of all humanity and in particular to aid in technology transfer and other goals of the development agenda. A mandatory set of common exceptions and limitations is required to preserve room for socially beneficial activities and foster creativity and technological innovation across the world.

This is particularly important for fostering distance education, a key element of technology transfer. To harness the benefits of international knowledge resources such as Project Gutenberg and MIT's OpenCourseWare online lectures for the purpose of distance education, a set of harmonized exceptions for education and public interest library activities are required.

Even the developed world can benefit from this. The British Library is just one of many international libraries undertaking a project to archive and make available the web-pages produced by its citizenry as a means of capturing and preserving the quicksilver years at the dawn of the Internet age. However, the British Library has no statutory right to archive, nor to make that archive available. And so they are embarking upon a Sisyphean labor to contact and secure permission from every British web-site author, one at a time, in a series of grinding negotiations. A set of exceptions and limitations for archiving would make this pointless labour vanish, so that the archivists could get on with archiving.

The world's most inspiring, largest, and best-managed repositories of human knowledge have sprung up around us one after another in the years since the dawn of the Internet. These efforts are stumbling over the lack of a harmonized floor on limitations and exceptions, and some of them aren't just stumbling -- they're falling and they're not getting up again.

These creative and socially vital efforts need international support from a body charged with promoting creativity. This body.

We ask the delegations and the chairs to give this proposal their favorable view and to bring it to fruition in the utmost haste.

Thank you.


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