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Global copyrights on table

An international convention could determine digital copyright laws for the 21st century--but critics fear it could also limit the use of information in cyberspace.

Starting today, a three-week international convention could determine digital copyright laws for the 21st century--but critics fear that the meetings could result in severe limitations on the use of information in cyberspace.

Digital information, copied and transmitted with the click of a mouse, has affected both owners and users of intellectual property. The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) in Geneva, Switzerland, is the steward of international copyright law, and nation-delegates at the upcoming conference will examine and vote on three proposals that aim to strengthen the rights of intellectual property owners.

Although the proposals are related, each can be rejected or approved independent of one another. Their language and details are subject to debate and amendment during the three-week convention, but the battle lines are already drawn between content owners and end users.

"If you overprotect information, you stifle innovation," said Adam Eisgrau, legislative counsel to the American Library Association. "You cut off public access to information through libraries, you cut off access for scholars, and, critically, you limit what educators can do with networked technology."

Officials in the Clinton administration, the main advocate for the proposals, say the international treaties would merely clarify and reinforce existing U.S. copyright law and shore up laws lacking in other countries.

"While U.S. laws on copyright protection are very good, not all laws in other countries are that way," said Peter Fowler, attorney-advisor to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. "[These treaties] would protect U.S. industry's works throughout the globe."

If the 157 WIPO delegates approve the language of the treaties at the end of the Geneva conference, they would be sent to individual member countries' legislative bodies for ratification. In the United States, that would mean a simple yes or no vote by the Senate.

Two of the proposed treaties in question would ascribe liability to network providers and signal carriers if an end user is found guilty of copyright infringement, according to the Digital Future Coalition, a coalition of industry and institutional organizations, and other critics including members of Congress.

Fowler contends that existing U.S. copyright law does not hold so-called common carriers liable for their users' criminal activity as long as the carriers are not complicit in the activity. Internet carriers are exploiting the issue to gain total immunity, said Fowler, who will accompany patent office commissioner Bruce Lehman to Geneva, where Lehman will head the U.S. delegation.

The issue proved contentious this summer in Congress, where a similar bill was backed by content publishers and opposed by telephone companies and other infrastructure providers. The bill, dubbed the NII Copyright Protection Act, never made it out of a House subcommittee.

"I am concerned that the proposed new 'protocol' and parallel provisions, if adopted in their present form, would be contrary to the prevailing congressional sentiment as reflected during our debates of the past year," House Representative Rick Boucher (D-Virginia) wrote last week in a letter to the president's deputy assistant for economic policy.

A third proposal, dubbed the Sui Generis Database Act, aims to strengthen the rights of database holders by broadening the definition of a database.

"Raw scientific data, sports scores and statistics, software lookup tables--they'd all be considered databases," said the ALA's Eisgrau. Eisgrau said the new rules could hamper research and scholarship and have not been subject to enough domestic debate, an opinion expressed by the presidents of the National Academy of Science, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine in a recent letter to Commerce Secretary Mickey Kantor.

According to Fowler, the United States will lobby for minute changes in the language of the proposals but is generally pleased with the treaties. Persuading other WIPO members, especially smaller, less developed countries with less stake in intellectual property rights, to adopt the treaties will be the delegation's main task in Geneva.

If the treaties are adopted and signed by President Clinton, however, the administration will certainly face home front opposition in Congress.