Digital advances threaten intellectual property rights, UN official warns

22 September 2009

With advances in digital technology playing into the hands of intellectual pirates, the head of the United Nations agency entrusted with protecting copyrights, patents and trademarks today called for a “global consultation” on how to finance culture in the 21st century.

Governments must reflect on “how we can make copyright work in a digital environment where there is no difference in quality between the original and the copy and where the means of reproduction and distribution are available to everyone at insignificant cost,” UN World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) Director General Francis Gurry told his agency’s annual meeting in Geneva.

“Tumultuous developments” are occurring, signalling “a fundamental challenge for the institution of copyright,” he said.

The objective of copyright is to “provide a market-based mechanism that extracts some value from cultural transactions to enable creators to lead dignified economic existence while at the same time ensuring the widest possible availability of affordable content,” but the problem is “how to realize that objective amid the convergence of the digital environment,” he added.

“If we are to retain in this Organization our relevance in rule making we must be able to deal with all the frequencies of the spectrum of technological development,” he said, urging Member States to find common ground in advancing the agency’s normative work.

Failure to do so would damage multilateralism and open the way to bilateral and pluri-lateral arrangements at a time when use of technologies is increasingly global, he warned, adding: “Global use of technology calls for a global architecture of norms to ensure that technologies are indeed available everywhere.”

WIPO needs to be able to make rules both for the latest developments in technology and for traditional knowledge systems. Member States need “to show flexibility and understanding” in renewing the mandate of the WIPO Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore (IGC) on terms that will allow tangible results at the international level, he added.

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