Online Forum on Intellectual Property in the Information Society

July 2005

From June 1 to 15 WIPO offered to everyone interested the opportunity to take part in an open, online debate on issues related to intellectual property in the information society. Some 374 postings were received on the ten themes (see box) covered by the Forum (, which broke new ground for WIPO. The conclusions of the Online Forum will form part of WIPO’s contribution to World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), which concludes with a summit in Tunisia in November 2005.

The forum is part of WIPO’s continuing work to raise awareness about intellectual property (IP) issues, and to encourage debate among all stakeholders about IP-related issues in a rapidly changing information society. While membership of WIPO is limited to Member States, the Organization welcomes non-State observers and attaches importance to building collaborative relationships with representatives from across the private sector and civil society. The WSIS Declaration of Principles recognizes that “building an inclusive Information Society requires new forms of solidarity, partnership and cooperation among governments and other stakeholders, i.e., the private sector, civil society and international organizations.” The online forum aimed to reach beyond WIPO’s members, observers and partners in order to offer the man and woman in the (cyber) street a chance to have their voices heard on issues of wide interest and concern.

The feedback

The postings on all the themes of the forum reflect the desire to be heard and to participate in global discussions on IP. Some, however, also express concern as to whether their voices would reach policymakers, or make a difference. Toby Bainton writes: “As in so many matters, policy is set by government delegations whose opinions are influenced mostly by the needs of businesses. (…) But governments should remember that information in a civilized society is like the air we breathe, and its circulation should not be unduly restricted. (…) A true information society would be in accord with the whole of society's needs.” Taran Rampersad recognizes the difficulty of the task, writing “The role of international organizations is not to have easy jobs – but hard ones, where real problems are dealt with… Balance requires discussion – which is something in which Civil Society needs to have a more active role and that role must have more weight.”

Questions relating to the public domain and open access (Theme Three) received the most postings. Introducing the theme of open source software, the WIPO commentary states:  Software innovation is a powerful tool for economic development. IP plays a critical role in promoting research and development in this field and in protecting and rewarding creative software development, whether based on open source or proprietary models. The choice between open source and proprietary models of software is therefore not a decision antagonistic to IP, but rather a business decision, based on strategic and policy choices, to be made according to the circumstances of each case.

Opinions expressed by the forum’s participants were mixed. Heather Morrison, an author and Creative Commons advocate, wrote, “There is a need to promote the public domain... The public domain should become the de facto standard, in terms of sharing, rather than "all rights reserved," at least with regards to distribution and use. …maybe work should automatically be considered public domain, except for moral rights, unless stated otherwise, and anyone who wishes to make a restricted-access version available would need the approval of the rights holder.”

Compare this with the comments from Paul Crowley: “Imagine a world without copyright. (…) A world without copyright would be owned by those with the biggest distribution pipeline. Period. 10 minutes after a band recorded a song, it would be available in stores. Not from the band – they wouldn't have the ability to distribute it that quickly. It would be from Sony or WalMart directly. The ideal of open Internet distribution assumes that all distributors are created equal, but we know that not to be the case. Without copyright the largest distributors would receive all of the revenue from creative works. The artist, author or performer would receive nothing. While a "no copyright" system would appear to remove restrictions, it would simply change the landscape to be even more in favor of large distributors.”

Alan Tam comments; “Giving the world free of charge my own invention and creative work is my freedom. (…) ‘Public domain’ is a good example of how to maintain the freedom. (…) WIPO, as an international organization, should recognize the need for more ‘constitutional freedom’ of such form.” In a similar vein, a posting from the International Intellectual Property Alliance states: “The public domain is enhanced by strong protection of intellectual property rights. (…) In addition, intellectual property protection does not preclude creators from dedicating their works to the public domain. If some creators do not rely upon the revenue from their works or inventions to provide for themselves and their families, there is no intellectual property law preventing them from utilizing a Creative Commons license or some other form of ‘some rights reserved’ license. In fact, creators may abandon their rights entirely if they so choose. To the extent that Creative Commons licenses provide creators with choices, they are supported by everyone in the creative community.”

A recurring point under most discussion themes is the term of IP protection, copyright in particular, and the need for more balance between the rights of authors and the public good. Shyamala posted: “The original intent of copyright was to enable authors/creators to enjoy the fruits of their labour, but also to quickly return the works to the public domain, so that society at large may benefit from creative works. The copyright term has been increased absurdly. What is the meaning of having copyrights for 50-60 years after death? (…)developing countries need access to materials so that they may have a chance at competing fairly in the information era. If texts written today are to be available only after 100 years or so, forget about the weaker economies catching up ever!” A posting from the International Federation of Phonographic Industries (IFPI), on the other hand, states: “In many developing countries, the marketplace has been so dominated by piracy that there is no viable mechanism for private capital to be employed in facilitating the creation and distribution of creative works. In such instances the creative voice is silenced. Communities throughout the globe – particularly in parts of Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and Africa – bear witness to the devastating impact that lack of effective copyright protection has on the ability to create.”

WIPO provided background information, introductory commentary and suggested questions to consider under each of the ten discussion themes, but did not moderate the Forum. Nor was formal registration required for participation, in order to give contributors the freedom to comment anonymously in their individual capacities.

The ten themes for discussion in the online forum

The WSIS Declaration of Principles sets out a vision for the information society – how can the intellectual property system support this vision?

The intellectual property system and freedom of expression and creativity: Help or hindrance?

The public domain and open access models of information creation: at odds with the intellectual property system or enabled by it?

What is the impact of copyright law, both at international and national levels, on education and research?

What are the rights and responsibilities of intellectual property rightsholders?

Global partnerships to achieve the United Nations Millennium Development Goals: what role for intellectual property?

How is intellectual property policy made for the information society: and who makes it?

How can cultural and intellectual diversity of traditional communities be respected in the information society?

Emerging business models for distributing intellectual property online: opportunity or threat?

What are the challenges for enforcement of intellectual property rights in the digital environment?

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