“Is copyright a cow in the swamps?” Such was the boffo opening gambit from a Ugandan publisher as the 5th International Publishers Association Copyright Conference kicked off in Accra, Ghana, on February 20. A Ugandan tale, it turns out, tells of two families who hope to enter the dairy industry but squabble over the business plan; meanwhile, the cow ambles off into the swamps of Uganda and is never seen again, prompting some to wonder whether the beast ever existed.
Indeed, for the remainder of this three-day conference, about 150 publishers from around the world and 100 African publishing and copyright officials waded into the swamps with the quixotic object of leading this wayward bovine back to the farm. Their task was not an easy one. Marybeth Peters, Register of Copyrights at the US Copyright Office, observed that though American courts have consistently upheld copyright principles as they apply to the Internet, the public is obviously in no rush to forego its guilty, Napster-like pleasures. Battling rampant copyright disregard isn’t cheap, either, according to Ian Taylor of the UK Publishers Association, who lamented the exorbitant cost of bringing legal proceedings against pirates and called for stronger funding to combat piracy. And Brian Wafawarowa of South Africa pointed out that publishing in developing countries is often hampered by flimsy or unenforced copyright laws, which are justified by the “educational needs” of those countries. Wafawarowa warned that the failure to recognize publishing as a bona fide commercial sector in these nations may ultimately wreak havoc on their economic and cultural foundations.
Seeking solutions to these quandaries were speakers such as Anton Hilscher, Vice President of the Federation of European Publishers, who outlined steps for beefing up digital rights management, while Eric Swanson, head of STM at Wiley, propounded the benefits of CrossRef, a system permitting the linking of articles from participating publishers. Swanson suggested that the Internet’s potential can be exploited through cooperation on technical and legal standards on a worldwide basis — rather than cow-style squabbling. (On that front, let us note that the WIPO agreements go into effect on March 6.) Maurice Long, consultant to the British Medical Publishers Group, presented the Health Internet Project, a public-private initiative between six major STM publishers and the World Health Organization. This project makes biomedical journals available to health professionals in developing countries for a nominal fee or for free. And on another note of hope, the Ghana Ministry of Education announced it would secure $70 million for textbook production and procurement, which will help local publishers boost business and attain international standards for book quality — another step toward cutting down the market for pirated editions and bolstering the stature of publishing in Africa.
In a final twist on our Ugandan cow story, the conference also included a most interesting session on the possibility of protecting expressions of folklore. Victor Nwankwo, a prominent publisher from Nigeria and a tribal chief, explained that folklore, being mostly oral and communal, poses unique challenges to legal protection. However, with globalization running rampant, many are concerned about protecting traditional knowledge from commercial exploitation. Betty Mould-Idrissu, Chief State Attorney from Ghana, pertinently asked why western interests are covered at the drop of a hat — such as protection of semiconductor chips — while protracted discussions simply seem to push folklore protection further into the muck. Publishers are advised to stay tuned to this contentious debate.
We thank IPA Legal Counsel Carlo Scollo Lavizzari for his contribution to this report.