Skip to content

WIPO Director Gurry on the Future of Copyright

Francis Gurry, Director General of the World Intellectual Property Organization, gave a presentation last week on the future of copyright law at a conference at Queensland University of Technology.  The full text of his address is here.  A key excerpt:

Digital technology and the Internet have created the most powerful instrument for the democratization of knowledge since the invention of moveable type for printing. They have introduced perfect fidelity and near zero-marginal costs in the reproduction of cultural works and an unprecedented capacity to distribute those works around the globe at instantaneous speeds and, again, near zero-marginal costs.

The enticing promise of universal access to cultural works has come with a process of creative destruction that has shaken the foundations of the business models of our pre-digital creative industries. Underlying this process of change is a fundamental question for society. It is the central question of copyright policy. How can society make cultural works available to the widest possible public at affordable prices while, at the same time, assuring a dignified economic existence to creators and performers and the business associates that help them to navigate the economic system? It is a question that implies a series of balances: between availability, on the one hand, and control of the distribution of works as a means of extracting value, on the other hand; between consumers and producers; between the interests of society and those of the individual creator; and between the short-term gratification of immediate consumption and the long-term process of providing economic incentives that reward creativity and foster a dynamic culture.

Digital technology and the Internet have had, and will continue to have, a radical impact on those balances. They have given a technological advantage to one side of the balance, the side of free availability, the consumer, social enjoyment and short-term gratification. History shows that it is an impossible task to reverse technological advantage and the change that it produces. Rather than resist it, we need to accept the inevitability of technological change and to seek an intelligent engagement with it. There is, in any case, no other choice – either the copyright system adapts to the natural advantage that has evolved or it will perish.

Adaptation in this instance requires, in my view, activism. I am firmly of the view that a passive and reactive approach to copyright and the digital revolution entails the major risk that policy outcomes will be determined by a Darwinian process of the survival of the fittest business model. The fittest business model may turn out to be the one that achieves or respects the right social balances in cultural policy. It may also, however, turn out not to respect those balances. The balances should not, in other words, be left to the chances of technological possibility and business evolution. They should, rather, be established through a conscious policy response.

There are, I believe, three main principles that should guide us in the development of a successful policy response.

The first of those is neutrality to technology and to the business models developed in response to technology. The purpose of copyright is not to influence technological possibilities for creative expression or the business models built on those technological possibilities. Nor is its purpose to preserve business models established under obsolete or moribund technologies. Its purpose is, I believe, to work with any and all technologies for the production and distribution of cultural works, and to extract some value from the cultural exchanges made possible by those technologies to return to creators and performers and the business associates engaged by them to facilitate the cultural exchanges through the use of the technologies. Copyright should be about promoting cultural dynamism, not preserving or promoting vested business interests.

A second principle is comprehensiveness and coherence in the policy response. I do not think that there is any single magical answer. Rather, an adequate response is more likely to come from a combination of law, infrastructure, cultural change, institutional collaboration and better business models. Let me take each of those elements and comment on them briefly.

My initial reaction here is to be modestly disappointed but not entirely surprised that the rhetoric of copyright’s ideals is mostly missing, that the concept of promoting knowledge and learning continues to be displaced by solicitude for new business models.  But there is some discussion of cultural dynamism here and some acknowledgement of the propositions that business interests are means rather than ends.  That is certainly to the good.  I would be interested to hear other reactions.