The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO)

  • What is WIPO?
  • Why are libraries concerned about WIPO?
  • What are the key WIPO treaties for libraries?
  • What are some of the current WIPO issues important to ALA?

    What is the WIPO?

    The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) is one of 16 specialized agencies in the United Nations system of organizations. WIPO administers 23 treaties dealing with different aspects of intellectual property protection on behalf of its 179 member nations. (See Related Links) Because each country grants different intellectual property rights and enforces them in various ways, intellectual property laws sometimes interfere with international trade relations. WIPO works with intergovernmental groups such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) to create mechanisms for intellectual property protection and enforcement that will minimize these problems.

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    Why are libraries concerned about WIPO?

    WIPO implements international copyright laws that implicate member nations such as the U.S. For example, the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works (The Berne Convention) established international standards for copyright protection that relates to libraries. WIPO members are currently debating the need for extending further copyright protection to expressions of folklore.

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    What are the key WIPO treaties for libraries?

    The Berne Convention, the first WIPO treaty signed in 1886, was the first attempt to codify international copyright laws. The most recent Berne Convention, revised in 1979, provides a legal structure that allows authors to enjoy copyright protection in nations other than the work's place of origin by establishing conditions for reciprocity between member nations. However, because of its age, the treaty fails to address many modern intellectual property concerns.

    In 1995, the World Trade Organization (WTO) and WIPO agreed to create an improved Berne Convention known as the TRIPS (trade related intellectual property rights) Agreement. TRIPS is a comprehensive multi-lateral agreement on intellectual property that

    • clarified the application of basic principles of trade to international intellectual property agreements
    • provided for adequate protection of intellectual property rights
    • defined mechanisms for enforcing those rights adequately within each member nation
    • determined how to settle intellectual property disputes among WTO members

    In 1996 the WIPO Copyright Treaty (WCT) made changes to the traditional copyright provisions of the Berne Convention to facilitate the development of electronic commerce. The WCT obliges member nations to recognize works fixed in a digital form and to implement anti-circumvention measures for those works. This treaty required the U.S. to amend its existing copyright law to comply with the terms of the treaty.

    In 1996 the WIPO Performances and Phonograms Treaty (WPPO) clarified many of the rights in copyright relating to phonograms (i.e., records, cassette tapes, compact discs). Although artistic and literary works were explicitly not included in these clarifications the treaty also required changes to existing U.S. law.

    The WCT and the WPPO are collectively referred to as the WIPO treaties. Together, the treaties called for member governments to set high standards for protection of copyright holders rights and to tighten the enforcement against technological circumvention measures. In 1998, the U.S. implemented these two treaties in one piece of legislation known as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) (See ALA pages on DMCA) thereby making knowledge of both WIPO treaties crucial to understanding the background of the current state of national and international copyright law.

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    What are some of the current WIPO issues important to ALA?

    Traditional knowledge, cultural expressions and folklore

    WIPO is currently concerned with the application and development of international law to protect traditional knowledge, cultural expressions and folklore. WIPO has developed an intergovernmental committee devoted to analyzing international issues pertaining to legally protecting expressions of folklore. WIPO defines these folklore expressions as "productions consisting of characteristic elements of the traditional artistic heritage developed and maintained by a community, or by individuals reflecting the traditional artistic expectations of such a community." This definition encompasses a variety of customs, traditions, beliefs, products, expressions, knowledge and processes.

    WIPO members are divided on this issue. Some members believe expressions of folklore are already adequately protected by existing intellectual property rights; others favor the establishment of an additional system of protection for these types of works. Among other things, the libraries are concerned that important creative material would be unavailable to the public domain and that the preservation of the culture and traditions of the rightful owners of these traditions would be jeopardized.

    The library community is an important voice in this debate. Libraries and museums can store folk expressions in their purest form so that they are preserved and respected without being exploited for anyone's commercial gain. At the same time, they enable the public to "use, re-use, and create cultural heritage." The indigenous community members and their heirs are technically the rightful owners of the material being stored, while libraries are allowed to make reproductions for preservation, educational and fair use purposes.

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    Geneva Declaration on the Future of WIPO

    In September 2004, ALA joined several hundred other non-governmental organizations and individuals in signing the Geneva Declaration on the Future of the World Intellectual Property Organization. The declaration demanded changes to the United Nations' approach to intellectual property laws, saying that current rules are unfair to developing countries.

    The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) has issued a statement about the Geneva Declaration. In its statement, IFLA explains its concerns: " . . . WIPO has thus far inadequately protected and promoted the balance between users and owners that is fundamental to effective intellectual property regimes. IFLA therefore hopes that the Declaration will bring to WIPO's attention a number of important issues that have serious implications for education, libraries and other providers of information."

    There have been discussions at WIPO about a proposed Access to Knowledge treaty, but a consensus about such a treaty has yet to emerge.

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    WIPO Proposed Treaty on the Protection of Broadcasting Organizations

    For several years, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) has been considering a treaty that would provide copyright-like rights (related rights) to broadcast organizations. Such a treaty already exists – the 1961 Rome Convention – which the U.S. never joined. Essentially, the new treaty would provide broadcasters with certain rights with respect to their transmissions, separate and apart from any copyrights they or others may or may not have in the content of their transmissions. These rights in signals include the right of reproduction, the right of retransmission, and the right of communication to the public.

    Libraries believe that there is no compelling public policy reason for the broadcast treaty, given the existence of the Rome Convention and the absence of any evidence of harm suffered by broadcasters. The U.S. should not support adoption of this treaty by WIPO until a compelling case is made for its existence. If WIPO does adopt the treaty and the U.S. signs it, Congress should ensure that the implementing legislation contains all the exceptions and limitations present in the Copyright Act, and that the broadcast right not apply to public domain material.

    More detailed analysis of the proposed treaty is available on this page.

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