The big picture

IT'S HARD enough dealing with the day-to-day basics of copyright. You know, when an editor says "...and we just want you to sign here" and evinces great puzzlement when you're not ready to hand your work over lock, stock and barrel for the same price they paid ten years ago to use it just once.

It's harder dealing with the middleweight stuff - like persuading a union that's a teensy bit twitchy about the court system while it waits to find out whether the final bill for the Repetitive Strain Injury case makes the lawyers millionaires in dollars, euros or good old pounds (bless 'em) that test cases are still a good idea. We hope to have news for you on that soon.

The big picture is a bit boggling: wrap your head around the language of international negotiations and you start sounding like a typo: WIPO, OMPI, WTO, GATS, ICC & TRIPS... but there's a lot going on and it's time to try to share it.

The naming of parts

WIPO is the World Intellectual Property Organization, properly called OMPI for the French for the same thing. Based in Geneva, it deals with patents - and with "Authors' Rights". The international law governing Authors' Rights is called the Berne Convention.

Authors' rights are different from copyright. For the flavour, consider the first line of the relevant UK law: "Copyright shall be a property right". And the opening salvo of the French Authors' Rights law: "L'auteur d'une oeuvre de l'esprit jouit..." - The author of an emanation of the Spirit shall enjoy, by the sole fact of its creation, a right of incorporeal ownership... roughly.

The important difference is this: Authors' Rights attach to living, breathing creators (and to their heirs for 70 years after they stop breathing). The idea of selling Authors' Rights outright is not so much illegal as a grammatical error.

Under the Authors' Rights system, the rights to a by-line, to object to distortion of your work, and to decide when and where it appears are fundamental. Economic rights follow. Broadly speaking, Authors' Rights apply to staff journalists as much as to freelances: their salaries buy their employers a license to use the work.

Under copyright, as practised mostly in the English-speaking world, the words and pictures you make have the same kind of legal status as the sandwich you bought for lunch. Except that, unlike most sandwiches, your work can be copied and re-sold.

The little matters of identification and integrity are bolted onto the side of the copyright system as "moral rights". These don't apply to news reporting, and in the US they apply only to works of art. In this digital age when pictures are so easily manipulated and websites are capable of delivering news to match your buying profile, having journalism backed - through moral rights - by the personal rights of an individual rather than the reputation of a multinational might seem to be a good idea.

Guess which system the Disneys and Bill Gatses and Murdochs of the world prefer?

Unfortunately for the corporations, the Berne Convention is based on the Authors' Rights system. That's simply because it's the legal mainstream around the world. And the US managed to sign up to Berne - how is a mystery to many international lawyers - so it could hammer people pirating Microsoft products in the Far East.

More alphabet soup

Enter the WTO, the World Trade Organization; and two big battles to come. The WTO's formal agenda is non-discrimination in trade: that anyone should be able to do business anywhere. TRIPS, the WTO Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, is a treaty which looks to suspicious minds like replacing the Berne Convention with an "everything is a commodity" model.

And indeed the ICC, the International Chamber of Commerce, says on its website that it wants to "harmonise" intellectual property law in the "Millennium Round" of WTO talks which will be launched in Seattle on 30 November. "Harmonisation" does make a lot of sense when words and pictures can be distributed globally on the internet with less effort than doing a paper-round. But we, the people who actually make the stuff News International and the others distribute, would rather like to see it happen towards Authors' Rights - which happen to be the basis of existing international law. So we have to work out some way to influence what happens over the next few years of the WTO talks.

Battle for the Beeb

The other battle is equally important to any journalist who believes in Public Service radio and television, and also means we may have allies at the level of international diplomacy. GATS is the WTO General Agreement on Trade in Services and it outlaws discrimination against corporations.

Some media corporations regard Public Service broadcasting as unfair competition. Many which make films in American English regard government support for films in their own languages - in particular French support for la Francophonie - as a sloping pitch. The exemption in GATS for "culture" runs out very soon. We can expect to see attempts to get the BBC's license fee and French film quotas ruled illegal. Expect a lot more French-bashing in the Murdoch media. And we as journalists may have to conclude that our stroppy cousins across the Channel are our friends after all: they don't want all of news and mass culture to be controlled and owned outright by US corporations any more than we do.

* Mike Holderness is the NUJ's representative on the European Federation of Journalists Authors' Rights Expert Group: a big title for half a dozen people sitting round a table in Brussels trying to figure out how to beat off Rupert's fleets of lawyers.

Nov/Dec 1999
[NUJ.LFB home]

[Media Unions home]

[CCC home]

© 1999 NUJ & contributors

[The Freelance: contents]

Site map Last modified: 13 November 1999
Send comments to the editor: editor@londonfreelance.org

[The Freelance: contents]