WIPO sliding back into the Dark Ages?

How long should copyright last? Should living beings or software be patentable? How do we as a society manage our knowledge? The World Intellectual Property Organisation deals with this sort of question. This associated organisation of the United Nations serves as a forum for the countries of the world to negotiate treaties like those that make it illegal to circumvent Digital Restrictions Management (DRM). These treaties are then implemented by WIPO member states – that’s almost all countries in existence. So rules made at WIPO trickle down to all of us. The treaties that made it illegal to break DRM were implemented in Europe as the European Union Copyright Directive, and in the US as the DMCA.

WIPO building, Geneva. Pic by Flickr user melanieandjohn, cc-by-nc-nd

Since 2004, the Free Software Foundation Europe is pushing at WIPO for a better global knowledge order. Our most important demand is that when it comes to copyright and patents, the benefits should be weighed against the cost. Many member states and the (extremely strong) industry lobby at WIPO portray these artificial monopolies on ideas as an end in themselves. In reality, copyright and patents are just two tools out of a whole toolset to promote innovation and creativity.

(If you happen to understand German, here is an interview (.mp3; sorry, no .ogg available) on the subject that I did with a German radio station today.)

Unfortunately, the current trend at WIPO is in the opposite direction. We had high hopes for the new Director General Francis Gurry, who took office in 2008. He took some steps in the right direction. For example, he hired a Chief Economist for the first time, tasked with investigating the reality in WIPO member states and assessing the effects of the rules that WIPO makes. (Yes, you read that right: There was nobody at WIPO doing that before then. No kidding.)

By now these hopes are out the window. Gurry’s remark in June 2011 that the World Wide Web would have been better if it was patented were just the final proof that like those before him, he cares only about maximising the reach of monopolies on ideas. A remarkable triumph of ideology over evidence, indeed.

So at FSFE we will have to keep pushing at WIPO. Things there move slowly, but with enough help, we can push them in the right direction: Towards a better knowledge order for all. Your support and help with this are very welcome.