'Messy' treaty for an electronic age

January 17, 1997

ACADEMICS and publishers are set to lock horns over the precise meaning of fair dealing as it relates to copyrighted material published and accessed electronically.

Authors wish to define the scope of their rights to protect their work in electronic media, primarily the Internet. But end users, such as academics who access the latest research papers on the Internet, want to extend and protect the rules of fair dealing.

Conflict is likely despite the adoption of the World Intellectual Property Rights Organisation (WIPO) Copyright Treaty in Geneva last month. The treaty codifies copyright law relating to the electronic medium but there are fears that the wording is so vague as to leave significant scope for interpretation.

Librarians who attended the conference as representatives of the academic and user community were pleased by the deletion of a proposed article which would have made casual on-screen browsing and temporary copying of electronic material illegal without the author's permission.

Article seven in the draft treaty had demanded that authors have the "exclusive" right to authorise the reproduction of their works "whether permanent or temporary, in any manner or form". Opponents feared that its introduction would seriously damage the work of academics and others.

The conference, which included representatives from the International Federation of Libraries Association and European Bureau of Library Information and Documentation Associations, also agreed to allow member nations to maintain and extend any national laws relating to fair dealing in the digital environment, thereby providing for further protection of user rights.

Toby Bainton, secretary of the Standing Conference of National and University Libraries, said: "Academic staff will want fair dealing to continue as far as possible as it has existed in the world of print. This is where the arguments are likely to be."

Publishing representatives say the treaty is something of a fudge. Charles Clark, general counsel for the International Publishers' Copyright Council, said: "I do not think there is much comfort for any of us out of this treaty. Quite frankly, it is very messy."

The problem is compounded by the fact that no clear definition of fair dealing exists even for the photocopying of printed material. Copyright Licensing Authority says that current consensus allows a single extraction of up to 400 words or several extractions totalling fewer than 800 words for the purposes of criticism or review. Fair dealing in research and/or private study is broadly defined as a single copy of not more than one chapter or, if several extracts are taken, not more than 5 per cent of a publication.

* The Geneva Treaty updates the 1886 Berne Convention which relates only to printed material. If a document is accessed through the Internet it is technically being copied on to the user's computer and is thereby in breach of copyright. But the treaty recognises that such stringent application of copyright would make normal use of the Internet all but impossible.

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