Copyright law and the implications for developing nations

Tomas A. Lipinski, dean of the School of Information Studies, is an expert on international copyright law, serving as a delegate to the World Intellectual Property Organization.

When a library in Botswana buys a copy of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” its copy is likely identical to that held in any American library. But Botswanan libraries and their patrons might not enjoy the same access as their American counterparts because of international variations in copyright laws.

Tomas A. Lipinski, dean of the School of Information Studies, is an expert on international copyright law who not only teaches UWM students but also serves as a delegate to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). He is well qualified for both roles: In addition to a PhD in library and information science, he holds a Juris Doctor and a Master of Laws, and has worked in both the legal and library sectors. He spoke about copyright issues in the world and in the classroom.

What are some copyright basics?

Broadly speaking, there are two views of copyright in the U.S. One tends to come from the content industry, which views it as a property right. The other tends to come from a broader base of users and stakeholders, which holds that copyright was established to benefit our entire society. And in fact our courts, including the Supreme Court, have said on a number of occasions that the purpose of copyright is to benefit society.

I suppose that it’s like the old saying, “Where you stand depends on where you’re sitting.” The goal is find the elusive balance between the rights of the copyright holder (which isn’t the same as the creator) and rights of users of material protected by copyright and achieve that societal benefit. Most believe our copyright system is out of balance, but rights holders believe there should be stronger protection and fewer exceptions and limitations, and copyright users along with public institutions that use rights need to be expanded. It’s interesting to attune yourself to the rhetoric, because most people whose bias is toward benefiting society speak of “copyright holders.”  The content industry tends to speak about “copyright owners.”

Things get more complex in the international context.

Correct. Europe, for example, tends to look at things from a “natural rights” perspective, in this case the natural rights of the content creators and producers. In America, we take a more pragmatic view – how do we use the law to accomplish what we want as a society.  It is more utilitarian in approach. So we see copyright a little differently.

What WIPO tries to do is take the laws of many different countries – WIPO has 182 members – and harmonize and standardize the copyright provisions throughout the world. Right now we have a patchwork of provisions throughout the world. An international instrument might not be perfect, but it would at least ensure basic provisions across the globe.

For obvious reasons, the two sets of provisions of interest to me and like-minded delegates at WIPO relate to exceptions and limitations for libraries, archives and museums and for educators. The U.S might not need to change its laws in response to new international instruments, as our provision relating to libraries and archives, while not perfect, is fairly robust. Yet, the instrument would prompt many countries to raise their standards, as many countries haven’t any or at best have only rudimentary user rights provisions in this area.

This has implications for international development, doesn’t it?

That’s very important.  In the U.S. we have a well-developed and very complex copyright law – it’s in our Constitution, so we’ve been doing it a long time. But the copyright law of other countries may not allow for use rights we take for granted – resource sharing such as interlibrary loan and that include cross-border transfers, the ability to make copies for preservation, security and replacement, limitations on institutional liability. Their laws many contain only a phrase or two about exceptions for libraries.  Moreover, the countries that have very rudimentary copyright laws are the least developed or still developing countries where access to knowledge is key to their futures. In civil society, the library is a focal point of that access.

That’s why at our meetings we spend two of the five days on library and archive exceptions to copyright laws.

And a lot of steam is picking up on education, as well. A significant mode of delivery in education is online coursework and learning. If the copyright impedes rather than facilitates this delivery, countries in the developing world will remain disadvantaged.

What’s an example of the work done by WIPO?

There’s a subcommittee called the Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Matters (SCCR). It convenes twice a year, usually in late spring and late fall. The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) sends a delegation to each SCCR meeting, and I am a member of its delegation. The most recent success coming out of that standing committee was the Marrakesh Copyright Treaty, which permits reproduction, distribution and making available of published works in formats designed to be accessible to visually impaired and disabled users, and to permit exchange of these works across borders by organizations that serve those beneficiaries. The United States is considering implementing legislation at the moment.

How does this inform your teaching?

Since the early ‘90s I’ve been teaching a legal class for librarians. There are many issues that come up in libraries – not just copyright, but free speech, privacy, information torts or harms, things like that. That course is taken by students who plan to go to work in libraries or archives or some other type of information setting where these issues can arise on a daily basis in the information-rich environment libraries.

As more and more content is available in digital form, content providers are avoiding the copyright laws by distributing material through creating licensing agreements – those are contracts that aren’t covered by copyright law. Librarians can negotiate changes to their licenses, but they have to be aware of the issue, so that’s another skill set that librarians need to have.

There seems to be a popular new ethos – information should be free. Are librarians tempted to take the chance they won’t get caught?

I’ve been teaching copyright law to librarians for 20 or 25 years, not only in the classroom but in seminars and professional conferences, workshops, etc., and I have never come across a more risk averse, conscientious group than librarians – they want to do right by the law.

The exceptions that international library organizations are trying to promote for libraries around the world are nothing more than that what’s been in place already in countries like the U.K. or the United States.

We just want to level the playing field because it’s so key to development.

When you started teaching here, it was the School of Library and Information Studies. Now it’s the School of Information Studies. The issues you work on go beyond libraries, don’t they?

Yes. I also teach a legal class that’s geared toward our BS and MS students who learn a range of IT skills. The course is a broad technology law class. We do a little bit of everything: intellectual property (patents, trademarks, not just copyright), online contracting, music licensing, computer crimes, free speech and privacy on the Internet, information torts and harms – the liability of service providers, a pretty wide variety of issues they might run into as a mobile app and web developer, network or technology administrator, information security or systems officer, etc.

We even handle some of the basics about what’s going to happen when you get a job in the tech sector and they ask you to sign a non-disclosure or non-compete clause.

Those are real issues for millennials who, it seems, change jobs often.

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