Interview with Alan Story:

Copyright laws are detrimental for the Global South

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Copyright laws, based on a model developed in and for Europe over a century ago, -  and subsequently reinforced, have been exported around the world as part of colonial rule and as a condition of trade agreements.  These laws are often contradictory to the culture of non-Europeans and are clearly detrimental for countries in the Global South.

ALAI interviewed Alan Story, senior lecturer at Kent Law School (UK), who has been researching these issues and their impact in the South and is at present undertaking a study within Latin America.

Story considers that the Berne Convention -which is the leading international copyright convention, adopted initially in 1886 as a trading agreement among a dozen European countries-, is inappropriate for countries of the Global South.  He quotes the example of China, which last year purchased the copyright to 10,000 books produced in the UK and the US to translate into Chinese and to distribute in China.  "How many books from China were purchased by the US and the UK?  Actually, 40;  most of those were business manuals; but there was not a single book of Chinese literature that was purchased in the US and the UK", Story asserts.  So the idea of freer trade in intellectual property, in practice often means "one-way traffic".  "The best seller in China today is Harry Potter; the movies being shown in Quito are Hollywood movies", he adds.

Story asks why countries such as these are being told to put up higher and higher intellectual property or copyright restrictions, barriers and enforcement:  "To the benefit of people in Ecuador or Zambia?", he asks.  "No.  To protect the intellectual property or copyright of primarily large transnational corporations: the Microsofts, Random House Books, Sony Music, and so on. There is no interest in free trade. If there was, the US and the UK would be buying all kinds of books of Chinese literature", he affirms.

To support his point, the researcher quotes a US government official, cited in "The Copy/South Dossier", (a publication he has recently edited: "a central objective of an information age foreign policy must be to win the battle of the world’s information flow dominating the airwaves as Great Britain once ruled the seas", adding that in addition to wanting to capture new markets with higher levels of intellectual property protection, they also want to charge for it.

Mexico marks a dubious world record for the longest duration of copyright anywhere in the world: 100 years after the death of the author.  Story points out that a book or song produced today by an author who will live for another 60 years, would have to wait until the year 2167 before passing into the public domain.  Such a law was not passed to protect Mexican authors (though a few may benefit), he adds, but primarily "to give longer and longer periods of protection to copyrighted goods being shipped in from the US."   More protection means more markets: "Raise up your standards of protection, lock up more pirates, so that we have a greater one way flow of cultural, educational goods", he mocks.

The Berne Convention claims to protect the rights of authors internationally.  By thus motivating intellectual and cultural production, through a temporary monopoly, it purports to contribute to the public interest, ensuring that these productions will then pass into the public domain.  But in practice, Story claims that today only a few superstars benefit from copyright protection.  "How many authors in Venezuela and Ecuador can actually live on their earnings?", asks the researcher.  "There are a few who work writing TV soap operas, but even the best Venezuelan authors must have other kinds of jobs.  So if this is such a good system for helping authors, how come there is only a handful?"

Moreover, he adds that "this system, that doesn’t really help musicians or artists, also in fact doesn’t give us good quality productions. They turn out cultural goods to sell, the way they turn out bottles of coca cola or Ford motor cars.  They don’t say: is this something that will challenge the prevailing wisdom, or hey this is a new idea from a current author.  No, the first question is: will it sell?  In fact for musicians in Latin America, the question isn’t: will this sell in Quito? But will it sell in New York, London, Barcelona?  It’s forcing artists to actually change the way they perform and lose their appeal, say of Ecuadorian music, to become a much more homogenized commodity that will in fact do well in New York."

An additional problem of prolonging copyright is that a huge range of production that could be of great benefit in the public domain, - such as out-of-print books or almost forgotten cultural creations - remain inaccessible, due to the problem of tracking down the copyright owner.

Cultural insensitivity

Membership of the World Trade Organization (WTO) involves as a condition signing the TRIPS (Trade Related Intellectual Property) agreement, which is modeled on a Western cultural viewpoint.  "The idea in Western copyright is that expressions have a single author, that there is one person that has written something", states Story.  "It could be a little group, but they\'re identifiable people.  Now for indigenous people the idea of having a single author of a folktale or a song doesn\'t fit, so in fact all of the indigenous expressions don’t fit into the copyright system."  A second idea is that "you can’t copyright something unless it’s \'fixated\', meaning that it’s recorded in writing or by some kind of mechanical recording process.  So in indigenous societies with a strong oral tradition, their works can\'t be protected by copyright.  Now I don’t think that they should be, because it’s a system that will not be to their benefit. So this is a perfect example."

Similarly, organizations like the World Intellection Property Rights Organization (WIPO) fail to appreciate that in many parts of the world there is a much stronger sharing tradition than in Western Europe and the US.  "People in Africa, for example, have a tradition of sharing information and knowledge. That’s seen as good.  In China the idea that someone owns a story just doesn’t fit.  In fact the way to appreciate an author’s work was to copy it all down. That would be copyright infringement in the West."

Another area where copyright laws are detrimental for the Global South is that they ignore the development needs of these countries.  "For example in education, there are important needs for literacy programs and access for basic kinds of health care information; but we’re finding that these barriers that are going up are hitting particularly hard for countries that want to educate their people," denounces Story.

He quotes the example of public libraries in Colombia that are charging patrons 10% of the cover price of the book for every loan.  "If it costs $10, you then charge $1 to lend that book.  This is turning a public library, - something which can have real value and we need more of them in Latin America -, into video stores or book rental factories.  If you’re a rich Colombian, $1 is not too much.  But if you’re the son of a single parent with three children who likes to read and who really wants to find out about the world and how we can work on poverty and solve diseases, $1 a book is a real barrier to access.  This is something that is directly related to the copyright system."

Another example he quotes is that, under the laws of copyright the only person who has access to reproduce a work of copyright is the copyright owner - who is seldom the actual author.  Blind people, who need books in another accessible format such as Braille or audio, or older people who need bigger print, face special difficulties.  Changing the format – into Braille or large print – is not allowed without the permission of the copyright owner.  "In the UK, the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) has been able to convince some publishers to have a collection of basic textbooks reproduced into Braille, such as an economics textbook or how to learn Spanish.  It costs something like 10 times the print cover price to produce a book in Braille.  So they produce a limited range of books which they now have sitting on hard drives in the UK.  Now, in a country like Ghana, (where there are a lot of English speaking students), they can’t afford – and what a waste of effort – to produce the same book in Braille that’s been reproduced in Britain at $200 a copy.  So why couldn’t the RNIB send a copy of these books in Braille through the Internet, so that blind students in Ghana could read them?  Well copyright won’t allow that.  The agreement says that you can only have blind students in the UK read these books, you can’t send them anywhere else.  And I could keep giving examples of that kind of inhumane and inefficient situation."

Story laments that despite the talk of the sharing age, the Internet itself is becoming like a "user pay-toll booth system".  Although there is a great deal of information freely shared on the Internet, in fact, much of the most valuable content is not visible, but shut into databases that charge a high fee to access.

"What’s wonderful about intellectual ideas and expressions is that they can in fact be shared.  I can sit on this chair, and perhaps someone else could sit on my lap. You can share a bed, but not with thousands of people.  But ideas and expressions, tens of thousands and millions can share them, without the other being disadvantaged.  It’s like a light-bulb: we can all stand around using that light and the fact that I’m using it doesn’t prevent anyone else from using it. But what copyright does is create an artificial scarcity and the inability to share this information, that is in fact very badly needed," he concludes.
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