Monday, February 20, 2006

Copyright and Access to Knowledge

The Consumers International Asia Pacific Office in Kuala Lumpur has issued a report, Copyright and Access to Knowledge, assessing the state of copyright law in 11 Asian countries. It is a sobering study and IMHO gets to the heart of some of the key difficulties with copyright today.

Amongst other things the report compares the relative costs of books in Indonesia, Thailand and the US. Relative to average incomes, a student paying $80 for a book in Indonesia would be the equivalent of a US student paying nearly $3200 for the same book in the US. As the Executive Summary states,

"Access to knowledge is critical for developing countries that seek to educate their masses. Educational materails therefore need to be made accessible to the public. Unfortunately the international copyright regime has developed in a manner to increasingly curtail access."

We have been blind to this massive economic barrier to access to information for generations because it has mainly been a problem for developing nations, out of sight and out of mind. Some people (a small minority in the scheme of things) are only really waking up to it now because of the work of folks like Larry Lessig and James Boyle on the impact of developments in intellectual property policy in our embryonic knowledge society. But these barriers will become increasing problems in our digital society unless we get serious about developing a balanced IP landscape.

The World Intellectual Property Organisation come in for some serious stick in the report too, with the conclusion that WIPO's technical assistance to the countries that were the subject of the study was "thoroughly inadequate" leading the countries concerned to provide far more protection to copyright owners than the treaties which they signed up to required.

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