“WIPO needs a ‘blue sky commission’,” says Lessig

I’m at home catching up on WIPO and copyright news with the copyright committee convening next week to discuss – among other things – exceptions and limitations to copyright. It looks like Lawrence Lessig was invited to WIPO to keynote at their ‘Facilitating Access to Culture in the Digital Age’ event on Thursday and Friday last week. Lessig called on WIPO to do two things. In the short term, to ‘actively support voluntary licensing’ schemes like Creative Commons; and secondly, for WIPO to establish a ‘blue sky commission’ to look into reforming copyright for the digital age.

In a video interview with IPWatch, responding to a question about what he thinks about activities currently underway at the WIPO SCCR around exceptions for visually impaired, libraries and universities, Lessig said:

‘I think that the particular flexibility being discussed right now is good but it all presupposes the same architecture for copyright regulation… so these are exceptions and flexibility that’s built on top of a system that presupposes that copyright out to be invoked or triggered every time there’s some reproduction made, or every time there some sharing of content made. And I think the first point of recognition that the system has got to come to terms with is that  copyright law never historically had that presumption built in… Even in the context of the Berlin Accords of 1908 it wasn’t the history that people ever imagined that every time humans would come across culture we would flip on the regulation of copyright… that instead copyright had a very tiny slice of human culture that it was trying to regulate – leaving a whole bunch of the rest of it free… and to see that now that we’ve moved into a digital  infrastructure that architecture entails that every single interaction with culture triggers copyright law. That’s the point that ought to make us skeptical of the current architecture of regulation and to think about what a different kind of architecture would be. So the current exceptions are fine clugas  in the technical sense of ‘on top of this infrastrucutre’, but what I’m saying is  we need to think of the basic infrastructure and identify a simpler and more efficient infrastructure to achieve the same objectives.’

I tend to agree. I spent the summer trying to navigate the problems with exceptions and limitations to copyright for digital education around the world for the EFF (and finished the first draft of my paper late last night) and kept coming up against the core problem that even if we could clarify exceptions and limitations for some educational materials, that we’re merely continuing the (broken) feature of copyright that every use on the network is regulated, and that fair uses – however regulated – will result in enhanced surveillance. It’s also really difficult to separate out ‘educational’ uses online when such great opportunities exist to extend learning beyond the institution, and into the world (evidenced by the wonderful remixes that Lessig shows in his talk). What we need, ultimately, is to re-establish copyright registration, to free the majority of culture from regulation and surveillance, and to establish a system that enables creators to build upon existing artifacts without requiring their permission.

Lessig’s idea to take this debate outside of the complexities of existing legislation that limits room for innovation is correct. I only hope that WIPO heeds his call. And while we wait, there are a bunch of really important organisations working really hard to tap away slowly and steadily at the monolith.

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