24th meeting of WIPO copyright committee comes to an end

The 24th meeting of the World Intellectual Property Organisation’s Standing Committee on Copyright & Related Rights (the Committee) came to a close in the early hours this morning after a marathon 10 day session discussing exceptions for the visually impaired and print disabled, libraries and archives, education, and protection of broadcast signals.

Just before 2am, the Committee presented their final conclusions from SCCR/24 before a handful of NGOs including the World Blind Union (WBU), the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB), International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) and Knowledge Ecology International (KEI).

1. Exceptions for educational, teaching, research institutions

Exceptions for educational and research institutions were discussed substantively for the first time during this meeting, and a provisional working document was adopted by the Committee compiling draft Articles, thematic clusters and member state comments titled “Provisional working document towards an appropriate International Instrument (in whatever form) on Limitations and Exceptions for Educational, Teaching and Research Institutions and Persons with Other Disabilities Containing Comments and Textual Suggestions” (SCCR/24/8 Prov.) (not online).

In their conclusions, the Committee agreed to recommend to the WIPO General Assembly that they continue to work towards an appropriate international legal instrument, setting themselves a deadline of SCCR/30 (May/June 2015) to finalise text for a diplomatic conference.

Given this was the first time exceptions for education were on the agenda before SCCR, the working document adopted by the Committee reflects remarkable progress – perhaps better than was expected. That said, discussions on substantive aspects of the text are likely to encounter serious opposition in SCCR’s ahead. Publishers were heavy on the ground at SCCR/24 and have a lot at stake as SCCR continues to work on this ‘monster’ topic.

2. Exceptions for libraries and archives

Discussions on exceptions for libraries and archives took a back seat at SCCR/24. On the plus side, working document SCCR/23/8 was adopted by the Committee for discussion at SCCR/25, which contains all of the issues library delegations have raised with member states and is a good foundation for discussions going forward.

Library delegations pushed hard for the Committee to make finalising a treaty for the visually impaired and print disabled their top priority for SCCR/24. Winston Tabb, head of delegation for IFLA, delivered a strong intervention on day 4 of the meeting:

Now is the time to act; the need is urgent. Visually impaired and print disabled people are deprived of the basic human right to read because this committee has not been able to agree. The library community, which is the major provider of services assisting blind people to access information, believes that the proposed treaty that the World Blind Union and related organizations is seeking is right, fair, just, and long overdue.

3. Exceptions for the visually impaired and print disabled

Despite lengthy informal sessions into the evenings and over the weekend during SCCR/24, the Committee was unable to finalise text on copyright exceptions that would ensure access to content for the world’s blind. While some member states had no problems envisaging a binding treaty protecting broadcasting signals, the nature of a legal instrument that would affect the lives of more than 285 million people with visual impairments is still very much up in the air. As Maryanne Diamond, President of the World Blind Union, said in her intervention:

“Let me ask you: how many minutes did you spend in SCCR talking about the type of instrument the audio visual treaty adopted in Beijing just last month would be? The broadcasting document discussed here, where there is a long way to go before there is agreement on the text, is spoken of as a treaty.

On behalf of the 285 million blind and vision impaired individuals around the world, from 190 countries, with close to 90% living in developing countries I represent here today, I have to say this is not just frustrating, it is insulting.”

And echoed by Dan Pescod, intervening on behalf of the Royal National Institute for the Blind:

“Almost every law that is made in this house in the past has been a binding treaty. Why, oh why is it not possible for all Member States here to take blind and print disabled people as seriously as they take law making in this forum for the protection of industry? Why are disabled people's rights, human rights, subject to debate deliberation and procrastination about the nature of the law? Why in short do some Delegations view people worthy of a second-class solution and not a treaty?”

For the NGOs representing the world’s visually impaired who have been engaged in discussions at WIPO for more than 20 years on this topic, leaving WIPO HQ at 2:30am this morning still without a finalized binding text would have been a bitter pill to swallow.

The Committee has set a pathway to convening a diplomatic conference on an instrument for VIP in 2013, and demonstrated a commitment at SCCR/24 to progressing the text  - putting in late nights and weekend informals. They’ve also agreed to hold intersessionals specifically on the instrument for the visually impaired in October this year to progress the text further. Nonetheless, there’s still a lot of bracketed text (including around libraries as entities who can copy works into accessible format copies for the visually impaired). The elephant in the room is still whether the Committee will be able to agree to a binding treaty, with the US and EU stubbornly referring to “an international instrument”. Knowledge Ecology International has some good analysis of their resistance (here and here), pointing out the controlling interests of US and EU publishers in their countries’ positions at WIPO.

4. Finally, broadcasting

While the ‘treaty’ word was wreaking havoc in discussions on exceptions for the visually impaired, discussions on protection of broadcast signals heard ‘treaty’ bandied about much more freely.  From three significantly different text proposals, the Committee cobbled together a working document that still lacks direction and confidently declared themselves on the path to a binding treaty. There’s still a lot to be clarified in the working text, and possibly among member states: several interventions indicated there’s still a lot of confusion on the floor as to what the problem with broadcast signals is that greater copyright protection would solve, and what that solution would look like.

In their conclusions, member states agreed to work towards convening a diplomatic conference in 2014 on a treaty for the protection of broadcasting signals, possibly putting broadcasting ahead of libraries and archives exceptions and exceptions for education. While text-based work on education exceptions in particular faces some big challenges ahead, and libraries and archives to a lesser extent, the working documents to have sprung from discussions on those topics at least seem more cogent and widely understood by the Committee members than an instrument protecting broadcasting signals. All SCCR agenda items to watch when SCCR reconvenes discussions in November/December this year.

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