Thursday, 12 December 2013

Users' Rights Over All?

With the shift from the Open Air conference to the Global Congress on IP and the Public Interest, the Leos have separated from the pride and are out exploring different tracks of the program. This Little Leo ventured into the combined User Rights/Openness/Enforcement tracks session on Conceptualising Users' Rights: Copyright, Open Access and Enforcement in Dialogue. She felt like she wandered into a wolf pack, knowing there were similarities between her fellow lions and these wolves but wondering “what the heck is going on here.” Her take away from this session was that the copyright of the future is going to come from Africa, not from Western ideologists.

The session was introduced by Afro-Leo Caroline Ncube who gave an overview of the Open Air project and things from the past two days for the benefit of those who [foolishly in this Little Leo's opinion] skipped the Open Air part of the conference. She also gave reports from the field on IP reform on the continent. Both Uganda and Botswana have people engaged in advocacy work, but there is no reform on the table yet. In South Africa, copyright exceptions and limitations as a concept is seen as a given and the only issue is working out the details.

From there, the other speakers took over: Niva Elikin-Koren spoke about fundamental freedoms as a force pushing against strong intellectual property rights. Peter Jaszi talked of getting ordinary people in the United States to understand the threat posed to them personally by strong IP rights. Lawrence Liang of India discussed the legitimacy of IP rights. Alek Tarkowski talked about the new definition of “Open” and the growth and change of open models in Poland. And lastly, Delia Browne discussed Australia's Smart Copyright Agenda, which attempts to balance copyright compliance with cost management in the Australian school system.

Much of the discourse was esoteric and idealistic, coming from a mindset that does not allow for competing views of society, whether societal structure or societal purpose. However, as one attendee from Kenya pointed out after the program, it helps to know what other people are thinking.  Indeed, there are some useful tidbits for the practical application-focused Africa.

Ms Elikin-Koren's focus on fundamental rights is an idea already adopted in Africa, particularly in the patent arena where access to medicines and public health are seen as interests that must be balanced with IP rights – at least in the discussions happening among those attempting to reform policy if not within the existing policies themselves. Ms Elikin-Koren stressed the importance of access to knowledge in the ability of citizens to participate in democracy, requiring information to vote (or at least to make an informed vote). Again, this concept seems to already be incorporated as one of the balancing factors in African IP discussions.

Mr. Tarkowski's and Ms Browne's experiences in their respective countries demonstrate effective balancing of interests. Poland's open movement started with grassroots activity and as their practices became more accepted, the movement switched to policy work and top-down integration. At the same time, as the open movement's ideas spread, they morphed a bit from the pure “Open” of legal openness to a more encompassing circle where open began to mean access whether legal ease of access, cost east of access or technological ease of access. Sometimes these are all combined, and sometimes they are not, but even individually, they represent an increase in access to knowledge. Australia's changes have had a similar result as the copyright reform has focused on easier and flexible access to works.

The main similarity between these two experiences and what this Little Leo sees happening in Africa is a natural flow to balance. As one participant said after the presentation, “but what about the creator's rights? We need to protect those, too.” The African policy makers and influencers are not working on “copyright reform” like the Western world with its long entrenched ideals. Africa is building its own system. Within this conversation, there are voices pushing for the new system to look just like the old system, but there is also an innate understanding of the balance needed for a system to work. And this is where Africa is way ahead of the rest of the world.

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