Lessons learned in Istanbul

Traveling to an exotic and chaotic city like Istanbul is inevitably an education, and visiting Aya Sofia and Topaki teaches one a great deal about the Byzantine and Ottoman empires.  But the real learning for me came at the eIFL IP conference at which I was a speaker.  A group of about 45 librarians from Eastern Europe, Africa and the former Soviet Union participated, and they taught me a great deal more than I could hope to have taught them.  Many of these attendees were the designated IP representative for eIFL, parts of the mission of which is to advocate for balanced copyright laws around the world.

One thing I learned is that amazing work is being done by libraries all over the world in conditions, both political and material, that would discourage many from trying to provide all but the most basic library services.  In Mongolia, for example, their copyright law is very new, adopted in 1992 after a period of socialist rule during which all intellectual property was considered state-owned.  The transition to privately owned IP is hard to navigate, and both the law and the social structures in Mongolia have not yet reached a high level of development.  Yet the Mongolian Corsortium of Libraries, represented in Istanbul by Baljid Dashdeleg, is trying to contribute its share of literature to the International Children’s Digital Library, whose mission is to “excite and inspire the world’s children to become members of the global community – children who understand the value of tolerance and respect for diverse cultures, languages and ideas — by making the best in children’s literature available online.”  The generous impulse of the Mongolian consortium to participate in this mission is hampered by both the lack of exceptions for digitization in the copyright law and the absence of usable mechanism to seek permission from publishers.  But I was deeply impressed by the willingness to work hard to achieve the goal of sharing Mongolian children’s literature more widely.

Which brings me to my second point, which is to note how clearly and unselfishly many librarians around the world see the need for open access to all kinds of literature.  In addition to its IP advocates, eIFL also recruits open access advocates in each country in which it works.  Many of those librarians are very advanced in their ideological and practical commitments to using the Internet to achieve greater access to knowledge.  I was told with great pride, for example, about the Armenian Digital Library of Classical Literature by Hasmik Galstyan, a librarian from the American University of Armenia.  It is one of hundreds of examples of how the potential of the Internet can improve education all over the globe.  In many ways, these librarians, and their universities, are far ahead of the US in their commitments to, and even mandates for, open access.

Nevertheless, it is impossible to ignore the fact that copyright law seldom helps, and often hampers, the educational mission of the institutions represented at the eIFL IP conference.  These developing countries quite naturally look to the international treaties (primarily the Berne Convention) and organizations (the World Intellectual Property Organization) as the create their own IP laws.  But it is a universally recognized truth that these international efforts have done much to harmonize copyright protection at a very high level and have ignored harmonization in regard to the limitations and exceptions that are so important for education.  Thus many countries have very strong copyright protect and very weak exceptions and limitations, and libraries are left to guess at what they can do, especially vis-a-vis digitization, or to simply take the risk and plunge ahead.  One African librarian told me very bluntly, but courteously, that the United States, with its zeal to export tough IP protections and disinterest in helping other countries design appropriate exceptions and limitations, was a very negative force in international IP.

There are certainly signs of hope, however.  The matter of exceptions and limitations has, for the first time, been put on the agenda of the WIPO Standing Committee of Copyright and Related Rights.  That sounds like a small matter, but it represents a big victory.  Perhaps even more promising are the efforts to get the WIPO to see exceptions and limitations to IP protections as part and parcel of the Development Agenda it adopted in 2007.  That agenda recognizes, primarily in the area of patents and especially pharmaceuticals, that a level of protection appropriate for the developed countries may be stifling for those on the way up.  For WIPO to recognize that these agenda requires more attention to copyright exceptions and limitations would be a giant step forward, one that eIFL is committed to realizing.

One of eIFL’s most important contributions to this discussion will be the Model Law it has drafted to aid librarians as they advocate for a balance copyright law in their own countries.  I was given a copy of the law “hot off the presses” while in Istanbul, and told that it would soon be posted to the eIfl web site.  In the model law (which I read on an airplane coming home and need to look at again when I can give it my full attention) is a sensible approach to both protection and exceptions that would greatly improve the international IP environment if adopted.  It should be the starting point, in spite of some reservations I will discuss in a later post, of any discussion of international copyright in the future.

One thought on “Lessons learned in Istanbul”

Comments are closed.