Top Internet Experts Debate IP And Digital Content; WIPO A Balancing Mechanism, Gurry Says

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Intellectual property was identified at this week’s Global INET conference as one of the most complex issues in the public policy debate related to the internet. With creative works abundantly available to copy, share, mashup and distribute, managing IP rights, obligations and limitations has never before been so complicated and controversial.

During the Global INET conference organised by the Internet Society from 22-24 April, the panel session “Digital Content, Intellectual Property and Innovation” provoked a lively debate about how to respect the openness of the web, promote creativity, and respect content owner rights. Francis Gurry, director general of the World Intellectual Property Organization, emphasised the balancing role that WIPO could play in the face of these politically charged and globally dividing questions.

As one of the keynote speakers to close the conference, Gurry evoked some of the many copyright-related internet controversies that occurred in recent months, including Wikipedia’s 24-hour blackout in response to the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) and the attack made by the cyber rebel group Anonymous on various US federal agencies in protest of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA).

Seeking Consensus in the Digital Era

In his intervention, Gurry said that although such political tensions are “here to stay,” the world needs to better manage them, pointing to the importance of the intellectual property institution as a “balancing mechanism for the various interests in and around the act of creation.”

Afterward, he told Intellectual Property Watch: “It’s a global problem, so I think it needs a global solution. No one country is going to be able to solve this because it passes obviously every border. And I think our role should be trying to, through this slow process, build a consensus on the way forward.”

The slow process of consensus building is, by nature, at odds with the pace of the internet. Gurry said that this opposition is a challenge that all multilateral organisations are facing today.

“If you don’t come up solutions quickly enough, the world is not going to stop,” Gurry told Intellectual Property Watch. “Markets and technology will provide the answer.”

So far, based on the Global INET session devoted to the question earlier in the day, it doesn’t look like the markets or technology has the solution either. The “Digital Content, Intellectual Property and Innovation” panel represented a wide range of perspectives on the debate with representatives from public policy, research and industry.

Wolfgang Kleinwaechter, professor of international communication policy and regulation at the University of Aarhus in Denmark, moderated the panel session that sought to evaluate “how to reconcile the need to preserve internet’s fundamental character and its empowerment for new forms of creativity with the legitimate desire of leading content owners to control the revenues generated by their products.” Video of the conference is available here.

Vint Cerf, vice president, chief internet evangelist at Google, and newly inducted member of the Internet Hall of Fame, co-designed the TCP/IP protocol upon which the internet was built. In his first remarks during the session, he suggested that if it hadn’t been openly shared, the internet would not have evolved as it did.

“Some information doesn’t need to fall under the conventional copyright regime,” Cerf said. He pointed to Creative Commons, a non-profit organisation that offers solutions for managing copyrights online, as one idea that provides a “spectrum of utility in control and non-controlled access for all kinds of information.”

Additionally, Cerf said that there are “big opportunities to explore alternative ways of either producing revenue or sharing content.”

Novel Ways of Sharing

Robin Gross, founder of IP Justice, said that the application of the current copyright model is not fit for the information age. “I think that we need to look at new business models that harness the properties of the internet rather than trying to fight against those properties, like the ease of copying and the ease of distribution. These are the properties of the internet and we see traditional business models really trying to fight against those when I think they should turn this around and harness those properties.”

Leon Felipe Sanchez, professor of law at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, also pointed to a need to develop new models to compensate authors and copyright holders which would be better fit for the web. “The IP regulation system needs to adopt a new multi-stakeholder system in which everyone who has an interest, including users, has a say in how we shape new regulations. And maybe one way is through establishing a worldwide blanket licensing system,” Sanchez said.

Sanchez equated such a system to an International Music Registry (IMR), which is currently being discussed at WIPO. In fact, the status of the initiative was being reviewed in a “Roundtable on the Information Interests of Music Users” also held on 24 April.

This WIPO initiative is meant to strengthen existing copyright infrastructure by establishing a system that will “enhance existing databases and identifiers and act as a platform for their interoperability.” The IMR consultative committee recently published the “Study on the Role and Functions of the International Music Registry” to evaluate its possible role in available rights management systems, especially as related to music.

Although the management of copyright on the internet affects many industries, music was the only industry represented on the panel. David Hughes, senior vice president of technology at the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), argued that while the music industry embraces new business models, content creator rights should be respected as much on the internet as anywhere else.

“One of the arguments being made is that the digital distribution is cheaper and easier and faster and that maybe we need to change the business model. The fact is that in the music industry, the distribution of a physical product was not a big part of our industry and neither is the distribution of it digitally either,” Hughes said. “We need to invest in the creation of high quality content and the only way to do that is to make sure that money flows back to the creators.”

To which, Martyn Ware, Founder of Illustrious, SonicID, Heaven 17 and The Human League, responded, “I would love to find out where those record companies are that are investing heavily in artists at the moment because it is not happening at moment.” For Ware, rather than focusing on “the theoretical world of lawyers and copyright agreements and treaties,” new systems should be encouraged to compensate the masses of artists. He also said that in a world of streaming where “we aren’t owning anything,” the current system is not adapted to the reality of the web.

In the face of an ongoing fundamental debate on how to best manage content rights in a digital world, Leslie Daigle, chief internet technology officer at the Internet Society, stressed the importance of internet standards. “We need to come back to building blocks. We need to look at the technology in terms of creators expressed, desired rights in their intellectual property,” Daigle said.

“If they [content creators] have to restrict access to their material by not putting themselves in an environment where it might be copied they can’t become visible,” Daigle continued. “Let’s get back to the primitives of how do we articulate what rights we want to have on our material and use that as the basis for generating new novel ways of sharing.”

National Efforts

As various stakeholders try to lay stakes in a ground that is far from stable, China is set to enact a comprehensive revision of its copyright law. Hong Xue, professor of law and the director of the Institute of the Internet Policy & Law at Beijing Normal University, presented some of the key changes to the law. She also recently published analysis of the revision in a paper [pdf] entitled, “A User-Unfriendly Draft: 3rd Revision of the Chinese Copyright Law.”

She explained that in the context of China’s strategy to promote indigenous intellectual property, the country is moving toward more exclusive rights, greater enforcement and stronger protection for copyright. “There will be less freedom of use, which is quite an interesting development in China,” Xue said.

Xue also remarked that as demonstrated by the debate on the panel, the jury is still out on whether or not this model, which proved its success in the US and Japan in a world dominated by industry, is best fit for a world dominated by the internet.

Other panel speakers included: Rolf-Dieter Heuer, director general of CERN; Jānis Kārkliņš, assistant director general, UNESCO; and Sacha Wunsch-Vincent, senior economic officer at WIPO.

Related IP-Watch articles here and here.

Rachel Marusak Hermann may be reached at

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