What we hope for WIPO under new leadership: neutrality, fairness, and transparency

Last week, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) nominated a new Director General, Daren Tang, who will assume the post on 1 October 2020. Tang is currently the Chief Executive of the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore and has served as the Chair of WIPO’s Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights (SCCR) for the past six bi-annual meetings of the committee. 

A growing number of civil society organizations working on copyright reform, including Communia and its members Wikimedia and Creative Commons, participate as permanent observers in the SCCR, for the committee addresses several important issues in the field of copyright. This includes a potential new treaty for the protection of broadcasting organizations; exceptions and limitations to copyright for libraries, museums, archives, educational and research institutions, and persons with other disabilities; and the broader topic of copyright and the changing digital environment. 

WIPO has the potential to affect norm setting in a variety of topics in the field of copyright, not only those currently discussed in the SCCR, but also others that WIPO may introduce via its training and capacity-building activities. In fact, although WIPO is a member state-driven institution and only its 192 country members can decide on the adoption of binding legal instruments or soft laws, the Director General and his senior management team can influence the direction of national law and policy reforms in developing countries through the organization’s technical assistance program.

The impact of the WIPO Secretariat on the work of the copyright committee

The WIPO Secretariat also has a significant impact on the work of the SCCR. In the past year, we have witnessed that it is fairly easy to prejudge the outcomes of an Action Plan on Limitations and Exceptions adopted by the WIPO member states if the WIPO Secretariat carries out the activities foreseen in such a plan in a manner that puts an over-emphasis on the private interests of copyright owners to the detriment of the public interests related with access to knowledge and education. 

Regional events intended to identify “areas for action with respect to the limitations and exceptions regime” can easily be turned into lobbying platforms for copyright owners, if ill-designed. Would-be beneficiaries of the limitations and exceptions regime can easily be prevented from sharing their experiences in such events in a structured manner, if no formal speaking roles are given to them. Furthermore, an international conference intended to discuss limitations and exceptions for cultural heritage and educational and research institutions can be organized in such a manner that the panels are dominated by rights holders and collective management organizations, preventing a fair and balanced discussion on the issues at hand. 

For any policy event to be credible, all stakeholders must be given a fair chance to express their views and engage in a meaningful debate to arrive at a common understanding of the issues at stake. Even more if the event is intended to provide countries with suggestions and possible areas for international cooperation. 

High standards and strict policy are needed for a fresh start

In this context, it is of utmost importance that the new Director General’s stance on issues that have been key areas of concern for the organizations advocating for society-oriented reforms at WIPO clearly contribute to: 

  • ensuring full participation of civil society representatives and minimising discussions held behind closed doors; 
  • ensuring that WIPO’s work is based on solid evidence rather than the product of influence of private sector or other lobbies; 
  • guaranteeing that WIPO’s technical assistance activities are development-oriented and suitable to the national levels of development; and
  • guaranteeing that WIPO and its staff are neutral and impartial sources of information and expertise.

We hope the new Director General Daren Tang will take a strong commitment to neutrality, fairness and transparency, and that his senior management team will be equally committed to those principles.

Cropped etching of a library, bookcase and secretaire by anonymous
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