WIPO Meeting Continues to Address Copyright Law

This article reports on SAA Intellectual Property Working Group member William Maher's representation of the views of American archivists as a permanent observer at the recent meeting of the World Intellectual Property Organization’s Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights. 

A glimmer of hope for archivists emerged in the outcome of the most recent session of the World Intellectual Property Organization's Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights (SCCR), held in Geneva from June 29‒July 3, 2015. 

The goal of the meeting was to continue working on language for international archives and library exceptions to copyright law. SCCR was also considering provisions to create new exclusive rights for broadcast and cable/satellite transmissions as well as exceptions and limitations for education and research. 

“A wide understanding seems to be developing that archives’ need for exceptions is meritorious but not a threat to the content industry and to authors,” said William Maher, director of archives at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the official representative of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) to the meeting. “This is an important step, considering the enormity of the issues every archives faces in fulfilling our cultural and educational mission in an increasingly global environment.” 

SAA, the sole U.S. representative from its sector, was joined at the meeting by nearly a dozen archives and library delegations from Europe, Canada, and the U.K. 

In addition to addressing the plenary session and providing a side-event panel session paper, SAA's representative was able to meet informally with some Member States delegations to discuss archival needs, resulting in a slowly developing acknowledgment that there are genuine problems for the mission of archives.

“No one seems to question the fact that archives have been swept up into something never intended to limit the archival mission,” Maher noted.

The road ahead, however, is far from smooth. At the outset, representatives from the European Union continued their efforts to thwart any progress by stating bluntly that they would be against any legally binding instrument, no matter what it is. How that will fit in with the EU's current effort to create workable exceptions and limitations within the EU itself remains to be seen. Clearly, there are political machinations at work that are beyond the scope of SCCR but that may affect SCCR's outcomes. 

Further, the U.S. delegation continues to contend that an international treaty is not needed and that existing national laws and customs are sufficient. This is despite the fact that the 2015 Study on Copyright Limitations and Exceptions for Libraries and Archives, which was prepared by the American copyright scholar and librarian Kenneth Crews, shows that more than half of existing exceptions worldwide entirely omit archives from making preservation copies and nearly three-quarters prevent exceptions to support research. Clearly, archivists need to find a way to enlighten the U.S. delegates about these issues. 

As with last December’s SCCR, this meeting also concluded without a committee consensus document, which puts the future of SCCR meetings in jeopardy. Without a consensus document, the upcoming meeting of the WIPO General Assembly could decide to dissolve SCCR, an action that a few Member States would welcome so that they can create so-called Expert Groups to discuss issues in a potentially less inclusive way. Such an arrangement would probably be more favorable to content owners than to archives and libraries. Nevertheless, the just-concluded SCCR meeting avoided many of the procedural battles that had left prior meetings in a stalemate, and discussion was effectively moved forward by the Committee’s chair. 

Although international copyright issues can seem arcane even to archivists, the fact remains that decisions taken at SCCR will affect each and every archives.  

“It only takes one request from one researcher somewhere outside our borders to make even the smallest archives a global actor,” Maher said. “Even the most basic archival function—making preservation copies—can put us in a difficult spot when it comes to copyright because we often have no idea who owns the rights. That's why we need an international agreement to protect us if we hope to operate in today’s world.”