The World Intellectual Property Organization Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights (SCCR) is currently engaged in discussing, at an international level, limitations and exceptions to copyright, including for educational purposes.
As the name suggests, these legal provisions create exceptions or limits to the exclusive rights of authors in controlling the use of their works by others for certain purposes. A teacher can only play YouTube videos in class, translate poems or insert an artwork in a presentation if there are educational exceptions in place in his or her country (or if those materials are licensed with open licenses).
Since not all of the materials that the teacher needs to use are (or will ever be) licensed with an open license, educational exceptions are extremely important. This is the legal mechanism that permits to balance the rights of authors with the needs of education. Yet, not all the countries have good educational exceptions.
The different treatments of education by copyright laws all over the world result in huge inequalities in the way teachers can provide education and students get access to knowledge. Some teachers have the freedom to choose whatever materials they feel are most adequate to illustrate their teaching, while others have to either refrain from using such materials or risk infringing copyright laws. Not to mention that this fragmentation also creates an obstacle to distance learning programmes and other cross-border uses involving educators and learners in different countries.
For these reasons, several countries at the SCCR, such as Senegal, Nigeria, and Tunisia, are trying to push forward the discussions towards a legally-binding instrument in the field of educational exceptions. A common set of rules giving minimum rights to educators and learners in all the 189 countries that are members of WIPO would have an enormous impact on education. Having all of those countries agreeing in such set of rules is not easy, though.
In order for teachers and students to be able to use works created by others without having to ask for permission to the authors, the lawmaker has to take some control out of the hands of the rightsholders. Thus, publishers and other rightsholders are raising their voices at the SCCR to oppose that.
Several members of WIPO, such as the European Union (whom by the way is planning to make educational exceptions mandatory within the EU), also do not want to proceed with that debate at an international level. These countries do not even support the idea of an international model law in this field, even though countries are free to implement such laws.
Due to this opposing views, in the last meeting of the SCCR there was no progress on the normative agenda. Several Member States and civil society observers were expecting to initiate the discussion around the so-called Chair’s informal chart on educational exceptions, but that did not happen. For the past two years the Committee had the chance to debate specific topics concerning exceptions for libraries and archives, around another informal chart. Therefore, the assumption that education would follow the same path.
Instead, in the last meeting WIPO’s Deputy Director General Sylvie Forbin proposed an initiative to contribute to guaranteeing access to educational material, particularly in low-income countries, and to ensure the sustainability of the national publishing sector. This initiative would involve questionnaires, seminars, pilot projects and maybe the creation of guidelines.
While Member States welcomed the initiative, many raised concern that this could take the focus of the Committee from the normative agenda. The civil society representatives expressed a similar concern. Indeed, the Committee has so many items in its agenda, that such an initiative could take up all the time that they have to think about copyright and education.
Moreover, the initiative only deals with the problem of getting access to affordable textbooks and other materials, whereas the obstacles that copyright poses to education cannot be reduced to that issue. Indeed, as presented in my analysis of 15 everyday practices in 15 countries of the EU, educational exceptions are essential for many activities that have nothing to do with textbooks.
The problem is that there is barely no one raising awareness to the issues of education at the SCCR. While the publishers have organized four side-events to the SCCR on the topic of education, the civil society has only organized one. The voice of the education community is completely lacking in this discussion. Having the educators present in this debate could be decisive to help policymakers define where to go next and what to do when it comes to protecting the public interests related to education.
The RIGHTCOPRYRIGHT campaign in Europe was the first of its kind to bring educators together around this debate. The educators’ voice needs, however, to grow stronger and be present at national, regional and international forums.