Open WIPO?

Cite as: Hackett, Teresa, “Open WIPO?” KEStudies, Vol. 1 (2007).

By Teresa Hackett
July 2007

By the time you read this, we will know the outcome of PCDA/4. The arcane acronym belies an event of great significance to the global knowledge ecology system. It is an event that will influence the direction and ethos of international IP norm-setting for decades. Most importantly, it will help shape the laws that govern how people create, disseminate and access knowledge goods.

The event is the fourth session of the Provisional Committee on Proposals Related to a WIPO Development Agenda (PCDA/4), taking place from 11th to 15th June 2007, at the headquarters of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) in Geneva. In fact, it is the eighth special meeting on the topic to take place in Geneva over the last two years under different guises. There is a sense, however, that the June 2007 meeting is pivotal and will determine whether the outcome is meaningful or whether the process of negotiation will stagnate and eventually wither in acrimony and disagreement. There is another sense, though, that the process itself has brought about change and that things will never quite be the same again.

Not since the 1996 negotiations for a WIPO Copyright Treaty has the library community become so deeply involved in an issue at WIPO. We have attended every meeting, made dozens of interventions and debated with countless government delegates. Librarians around the world have rallied to support a cause which they see as central to the future mission and role of libraries. Our resources have been stretched and we have expended a lot of time and effort. But this expense is nothing compared to the long-term cost to access to knowledge unless there is international reform. At the 2005 World Library Congress, hundreds of librarians spoke passionately about problems they encounter everyday, such as limitations in the use of audio-visual formats and the failure of digitisation projects due to copyright restrictions. Technological protection measures prevent libraries from making lawful uses of works. Licences, which predominantly govern access to digital content, often restrict statutory rights. The message at the Library Congress was clear; there is a need to counter-balance a system that increasingly acts as a barrier to librarians and library users. As a major stakeholder providing access to the world’s cultural and scientific heritage for current and future generations, doing nothing is simply not an option for librarians.

WIPO and the development agenda
WIPO is an incredibly important institution because it creates international treaties and, critically, it provides technical and legislative assistance to developing countries. Decisions taken in Geneva and advice provided by the Secretariat impact directly on the provision of library services, especially in developing countries. These services address basic educational needs, provide access to learning resources, scientific and research information, as well as culture and entertainment.

Established cooperation between WIPO and rights holder organisations, such as publishers and collecting societies, include Memoranda of Understanding and the joint organisation of global training seminars. Without equivalent cooperation agreements, library and other user groups are excluded from formally contributing to vital programmes, which consequently reflect the interests of one group over another. Libraries need national policy makers and legal draftspersons who are well informed about the use of flexibilities and who consult with all stakeholders. This is important because copyright laws that are not balanced further reduce or even block access to resources for libraries and their users, especially in the poorest countries of the world.

The international library community has therefore thrown its weight behind proposals for a WIPO development agenda introduced by a coalition of fifteen member states known as the Group of Friends of Development, led by Argentina and Brazil. The proposals are thoughtful and constructive. The discussions represent the first real opportunity to address our concerns in an open and transparent way.

But the development agenda is about more than greater participation by civil society and public interest groups. It cuts across all WIPO activities. It is about strengthening the role of member states in guiding WIPO’s work. It is about providing independent evidence, including the impact on development, before new treaties are embarked upon. It is about integrating flexibilities and public policy issues into technical assistance programmes. Above all, it is about re-orienting WIPO to its original goal to promote intellectual creativity, rather than intellectual property. If the development agenda becomes a reality, the principles underlying international IP policymaking will become more equitable. For WIPO, its position amongst libraries and other stakeholders working in this field will be enhanced, producing effective and mutually beneficial partnerships.
PCDA/4 – the final furlong
After two years of talks, tedious arguments over procedure, moments of high entertainment and lots and lots of proposals, the real negotiations have finally begun. In February 2007, agreement was reached on the less contentious proposals, although we were surprised when even this turned out not to be straightforward. Several member states, in particular Colombia, disagreed that WIPO had a role in promoting or even discussing the public domain. In response, Electronic Information for Libraries (, the US Library Copyright Alliance and the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) issued a joint statement on why WIPO should care about the public domain. The statement corrected some confusions and cited examples of public domain works which have been used to create new works. This disagreement was the only sour note in an otherwise constructive and cooperative meeting, assisted greatly by the skill and charm of the new chairman.

We hope that the tangible spirit of goodwill and cooperation will extend to PCDA/4 in June 2007, although no one is under any illusion about the difficulty of the task ahead. Most of the substantive issues have been left for discussion at this meeting. For libraries, we will be looking in particular for agreement on proposals promoting exceptions and limitations; public interest policy space; boosting access to public domain material; strengthening national capacity and monitoring technical and legislative assistance to ensure a balance between protection for rights owners and the public interest. There’s also the “dream treaty” for libraries: an international instrument on Access to Knowledge and Technology that would establish mandatory minimum exceptions and limitations, enshrining and safeguarding user rights in the digital age. The stakes are high. Unless agreement is reached, the essence of the development agenda will have been lost. Worse still, a great opportunity will have been missed.

Lasting change?
Has the process itself brought about change? Yes, I think that it has. For a start, the old chestnut that branded those calling for limitations on copyright as being anti-copyright has almost gone! WIPO-organised regional training seminars and information sessions in Geneva are opening up to a spectrum of stakeholders and have included discussion on new models, such as open access publishing and Creative Commons licensing. In parallel, the Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights has recently published a study on limitations and exceptions for blind and visually impaired people and the government of Chile has requested a similar study for libraries. Such initiatives must continue. To remain relevant, WIPO must be open to the innovative technologies, new tools and knowledge goods being used by millions of people around the world each day. By promoting expert debate on such matters, participation in international IP policy making will be an enriched learning experience for all, leading to better policies and laws.

We hope that the changes thus far are just the beginning. They must be meaningful and lasting. Through dialogue and cooperation, we wish to build partnerships and to share the expertise of the library community in collecting, organising, preserving and making all types of content available to students, scholars, scientists and citizens. But first we need a framework that is open and inclusive, balanced and fair. We need a development agenda for WIPO.

Teresa Hackett runs Advocacy for Access to Knowledge: Copyright & Libraries, a programme to raise awareness of copyright issues for libraries in 50 developing and transition countries. She can be reached at teresa.hackett at