Copyrighting the Air

WIPO roundup


In November the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) met in Geneva to negotiate a new broadcasting treaty. The old agreement, known as the Rome Convention, had been around since 1961; there had been a lot of technological changes in the ensuing four decades, so there was plenty to incorporate into the new accords. Most participating countries wanted the document to address the issue of "signal piracy"–the illicit interception of coded transmissions, a practice that often crosses borders. But Europe and America had a larger agenda.

Under their pressure, WIPO proposed a treaty that would award broadcasters a copyright in the signals they transmit, even when the transmission's contents are in the public domain. In fact, the new rules would give the broadcasters more rights over the content than its creators have. They would also require countries to pass laws similar to America's Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which bans "circumvention" of technological barriers to copying. One portion of the proposal, called Alternative V, would extend such anti-circumvention restrictions to encrypted broadcast signals, effectively outlawing decryption of all kinds.

Several countries objected to these measures, with Brazil and India leading a movement to restrict the treaty to signal piracy. Their one significant victory was to defeat an American proposal that would extend the agreement to cover webcasting. The rest will survive until the next round of negotiations in mid-2005.

Opponents of the accords have alleged a number of petty dirty tricks. Blogging from the negotiations at the Electronic Frontier Foundation's site, author Cory Doctorow noted that handouts critical of the proposals "were repeatedly stolen and pitched into the trashcans in the bathrooms." Needless to say, the treaty contains no penalties for this sort of piracy.