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Last Updated: Monday, 18 October, 2004, 11:58 GMT 12:58 UK
The fight for your right to share
Dot.life - where technology meets life, every Monday
By Mark Ward
BBC News Online technology correspondent

Electron microscope image of chromosomes, PA
The Human Genome project shows the value of public information
Ask the average man in the street what Wipo means to them and most will look at you blankly.

But if truth be told the World Intellectual Property Organisation has a profound influence on the lives of anyone who watches TV, listens to the radio, uses the net or owns a portable music player - pretty much all of us.

The treaties and agreements that Wipo agrees set the broad agenda for protection of intellectual property rights for the whole world.

Consumers feel the bite of these laws when they find they can't play a CD on their computer, copy downloaded music easily between different devices or make a video copy of a DVD so their kids do not wreck the expensive original.

The controversial Digital Millennium Copyright Act was the US putting in to effect recommendations made by Wipo in the late 1990s.

The DMCA was the law that the record companies initially used to pursue people swapping music online.

Big change

But now something remarkable has happened.

Instead of just giving owners of intellectual property bigger sticks to enforce their rights, Wipo has agreed to embrace new ways of working.

During the Wipo's recent General Assembly it voted to incorporate ways to develop and promote creativity into its basic goals. Now Wipo is more about opening up access to intellectual property, if it's appropriate, not just keeping people out.

Lots of pills and tablets, BBC
Rows over generic drugs paved the way for the Wipo change
And it could not have happened without the net.

The net has demonstrated how positive a force greater access to information can be, says James Love, director of the Consumer Project on Technology that was instrumental in making Wipo adopt this approach.

The net's open source movement, which revolves around Linux, and its collaborative encyclopaedia, the Wikipedia, also shows how well alternative creative systems can work when rights and access are almost unlimited.

What also helped to convince Wipo to widen its remit came from wrangles in the World Health Organisation and the World Trade Organisation over medicines.

These rows resulted in declarations that gave developing nations the right to make or import generic copies of drugs when tackling serious problems of public health.

This signalled that a company's ownership of its intellectual property did not over-ride all other rights and that there could be good reasons for diluting these protections - particularly if it were done for socially beneficial ends.

Public goods

Initiatives such as the Human Genome Project, which aims to create a public database of genetic information, have also shown that there is a need for public archives and that great benefits can flow from them.

Alongside this, says Mr Love, went a couple of years of intense lobbying that involved submitting proposals about CP Tech's aims, organising conferences, seminars and the like to educate Wipo delegates about alternatives.

The net helped here too, he said.

"What the internet does, which is quite remarkable, is that it speeds the transmission of ideas up so fast that something that would have taken years to put together now takes about 9 months," he says.

CDs and disks, Eyewire
Copyright owners want to put limits on what you can do
"This has established that we have a constituency all over the planet."

But this does not mean a free-for-all in which all copyright is extinguished and the world is handed over to the pirates. "We are not taking a position that copyright cannot protect their legitimate interests."

The question is where those legitimate rights to protection should stop and whether other methods are better to inspire creativity and innovation.

Many observers of intellectual property laws say that many are not being used to stop piracy but are more tools to consolidate monopolies and markets.

It goes far beyond just technology too. For many in the developing world, denying access to intellectual property can be a matter of life and death when what's in question is the recipe for a drug.

But the latest victory, says Mr Love, is not the end of the fight.

"It's the beginning of something," he says. "It's not like it is a brand new agency."

Just how much Wipo has changed will become apparent in November when the organisation debates the controversial Broadcast Treaty.

This would give broadcasters sweeping powers to restrict what viewers could do with the programmes they watch.

If enacted in its full form, it could mean people could no longer tape shows from the TV without permission or copy CDs.

"That's going to be a real test for us," he says.

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