A controversial treaty proposal that could have forced Internet service providers and telephone carriers to police their customers' activities has been dropped today, according to reports from Geneva, Switzerland, where world delegates have been grappling with the future of international copyright.
Article 7 of Treaty I, under consideration by the World Intellectual Property Organization, caused last-minute gridlock at the conference because it could have deemed temporary electronic copies of copyrighted materials, such as cached Web pages, illegal without an owner's explicit permission.
The provision also could have made Internet service providers and telephone carriers responsible for copyright infringements that occur over their services, even if they were unaware of the violations. Delegates attempted to soften the language of the article to make it more widely acceptable so that, for example, carriers would have to know of the violation and be allowed to act against it before being penalized. But the article was nonetheless rejected.
Despite the rejection, Treaties I and II were approved in reduced form, a partial victory for copyright-dependent industries, such as music and entertainment.
Opponents of the three treaties were pleased with the rejection of Article 7 but said the passage of the remaining provisions are a blow. "We are also deeply disappointed that Treaties I and II were approved. These...should not have been legislated by government employees at a meeting of a United Nations agency before any national legislature (including our own) had addressed the most important and controversial issues," James Love, director of the Consumer Project on Technology wrote to the organization's email list today.
WIPO is expected to today announce the final modified language of the provisions that delegates adopted. Article 7 opponents worry that the actual language could still lay out provisions that hurt their cause.
"Apparently it's a done deal," said Love. "Yet the language should have been available, debated and discussed. It will be too late for a debate because the U.N. has acted. It's a perfect deal for the big giant entertainment companies."
Delegates examined three proposed treaties over the past three weeks, which were aimed at strengthen the rights of intellectual property owners. They were supposed to wrap up negotiations by 6 p.m. in Geneva, but missed their deadline.
The delay was no surprise. "There's so much divisiveness between nations; that's the reason it's happening," said Ephraim Cohen, coalition coordinator for the Digital Future Coalition, "No one's going to push forward anything unless all sectors of industry are satisfied with it."
The convention started December 2 and was closely watched by industry and civil liberties groups who feared the delegates' votes would result in severe limitations on the use of information in cyberspace.
Proponents of the treaty, including the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Microsoft, and IBM, said the only goal of the international treaties is to clarify and reinforce existing U.S. copyright law and improve weak laws in other countries.
Treaty I addressed protecting the rights of authors in their literary and artistic works. Articles 7 and 10 of the treaty came under attack by ISPs, telephone carriers, content providers, and other industry groups. Under the article, for example, companies could have been responsible if a customer's homepage contained unauthorized copyrighted pictures, text, audio, or video clips.
Treaty II protects the copyright of digital audio files.
The Recording Industry Association of America, which represents the interests of the $24 billion U.S. sound recording industry, was elated to hear that Treaty II had been approved. With the treaty in place, RIAA hopes record companies will control the usage of digital copies and prosecute for wrongful reproduction and distribution.
"The treaties succeed in balancing the rights of copyright holders and users, ensuring that the global information superhighway will flourish in the 21st century," the group wrote in a statement.
Treaty III, the so-called sui generis database treaty, would have allowed owners of databases, including those hosting research and sports scores, to protect the information contained within the database. The provision would have allowed facts to be copyrighted, a practice that runs contrary to hundreds of years of copyright laws and practices.
It was quietly abandoned last week, according to sources at the conference, as a result of staunch opposition from computer industry, library, and consumer advocacy groups. Opponents said the treaty would have granted overly broad rights to database creators, stifling the free flow of information.