WIPO and the future of copyright

I’ve read with great interest the text of a presentation by Dr Francis Gurry to the Blue Sky Conference: Future Directions in Copyright Law, held in Queensland at the end of February. Dr Gurry is the Director General of the World Intellectual Property Organisation, and I believe that his presentation affirms the winds of change that have been sweeping through that international institution. During the 90s and the early 00s (by thw way, has there been an agreement about what to call that decade? but I digress) WIPO was very much in the maximalist camp, with little or no interest paid to alternative licensing methods, or to have interest about user’s rights. With the slow demise of the music industry as we know it, WIPO began to entertain more progressive ideas, inviting open source and open content experts to their meetings. So Dr Gurry’s presentation should come as no surprise to those who have been keeping an eye on what has been happening in Geneva.

To me, this paragraph encapsulates Dr Gurry’s message quite well:

“The enticing promise of universal access to cultural works has come with a process of creative destruction that has shaken the foundations of the business models of our pre-digital creative industries. Underlying this process of change is a fundamental question for society. It is the central question of copyright policy. How can society make cultural works available to the widest possible public at affordable prices while, at the same time, assuring a dignified economic existence to creators and performers and the business associates that help them to navigate the economic system? It is a question that implies a series of balances: between availability, on the one hand, and control of the distribution of works as a means of extracting value, on the other hand; between consumers and producers; between the interests of society and those of the individual creator; and between the short-term gratification of immediate consumption and the long-term process of providing economic incentives that reward creativity and foster a dynamic culture.”

This is indeed the question at the heart of copyright policy, and the balance has often in the past been slanted towards restricting access, while the public has been shifting towards de facto practices that encourage wider access and more sharing, be it legal or illegal. This is found in the worrying rise of Pirate Parties in Europe. While it is clear that this is not a wider occurrence, it certainly is an indication of a wider malaise that has to be tackled with adequate policies. He states:

“In order to effect a change in attitude, I believe that we need to re-formulate the question that most people see or hear about copyright and the Internet. People do not respond to being called pirates. Indeed, some, as we have seen, even make a pride of it. They would respond, I believe, to a challenge to sharing responsibility for cultural policy. We need to speak less in terms of piracy and more in terms of the threat to the financial viability of culture in the 21st Century, because it is this which is at risk if we do not have an effective, properly balanced copyright policy.”

Finally, Dr Gurry calls for the industry to sort out its business models. This is something that many of us in both sides of the copyfight have been advocating for years, but it is nice to see a call to that come from the highest echelons at WIPO.