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Studying Intellectual Property and Copyright in Geneva

Submitted on Thursday, March 28, 2019

Students Lubnaa Jaumdally (left) and Amal Hussienhave their say at a side event entitled “Truths, Trends and Tropes: Unpacking the Debate around Copyright Exceptions and Limitations.” Photo by Victoria Owen.

For non-experts, copyright can be a daunting concept. Questions abound. Can I use that photograph for my presentation, copy this article for my class, or stream my favourite TV show from that site? For libraries, archives and museums, or LAMs as they’re known, the situation can be even more complex.

As lawyer and Faculty of Information Master’s student Joy Ramlogan sees it, the lack of clarity leads to very different outcomes. “On the one hand, people are so afraid of litigation, they err on the side of not using [copyrighted materials],” she explains. “On the other hand, you also see the attitude of act first, ask later.”

Ramlogan was one of a group of 12 Faculty of Information students who travelled to Geneva earlier this month to sit in on discussions about how LAMs should be treated under international copyright treaties. The students were attending the World Intellectual Property Organization’s (WIPO) 38th Session of the Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights, which is looking at possible limitations and exceptions for LAMs.

“The opportunity to go to a UN conference was unexpected and thrilling, something that my young self would have been extremely excited about,” says Ramlogan, who returned to school after decades in the workforce. She praised the three professors who organized the trip including meetings with “basically the entire secretariat and the chair of the standing committee, a much-coveted meeting.”

Many doors were opened by the Faculty of Information’s Scholar Practitioner, Victoria Owen, who is a leading national and international expert on copyright and information policy, chair of the Copyright Committee of the Canadian Federation of Library Associations, and a board member of WIPO’s Accessible Book Consortium.  Associate Professor Nadia Caidi played a key role in preparing students for the trip and securing some of the funding, although she could not attend herself.

Thanks to Owen, the students to attend the Geneva conference as affiliates of CFLA since they couldn’t register simply as students. She and the students crafted and submitted a general statement for CFLA, and MI student Joanna Grodecki posed a question to one of WIPO’s guest presenters during the formal session.

Four students also took part in a side event on copyright for libraries and education where, according to Owen, they “witnessed the pushback my comments triggered from both international publishers and a Canadian publisher from the Canadian Copyright Alliance.”

When it comes to copyright, the interests of libraries’ and publishers can diverge dramatically, leading to heated debates. “The hot area is digital rights. That’s what is playing out right now and, in the news,” explains Ramlogan. “There’s a huge issue with academic libraries and digital publishing.”

Earlier this year, for example, the University of California’s libraries cancelled its subscriptions to Elsevier one of the world’s biggest academic publishers. The libraries’ previous five-year contract with Elsevier had cost some $US50 million. After years of paying for both digital and paper subscriptions, the universities will no longer have access to anything but physical copies, Ramlogan points out.

“The public interest is not the private interest so when you speak on behalf of the public interest, limited as it is, the private interests don’t like it,” says Owen.

Along with witnessing their professor take on publishers in defense of limitations and exceptions for limited purposes, the students also saw how slowly and painstakingly bodies like WIPO work. “It’s a very viscous process,” says second year Archives and Records management student, Rebecca Ritchie. “I’m a Millennial and I want to do everything now. That’s not how they operate at WIPO.”

The students had a much-coveted meeting with Daren Tang, Chair of the Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights. Front row (left to right): Lubnaa Jaumdally, Jenna Mlynary, Rebecca Ritchie, Jean Dryden. Back row: Weronika Waszewski, Joanna Grodecki, Sandra Janjicek, Tamaira Blackwood, Joy Ramlogan, Fuchsia Norwich, Amal Hussien, Victoria Owen, Daren Tang, David Jones, Ming Liu.

Ritchie first became interested in issues like intellectual property and copyright when she wrote an undergrad paper on how the estate of author Samuel Beckett refused to allow women to perform in his play, Waiting for Godot by claiming moral rights. At the Faculty of Information, she learned about the concept of “fair dealing” — or fair use as it’s known in the U.S. — in a course on Remix culture.

Then, after meeting Jean Dryden, a Faculty of Information lecturer and expert in the impact of law on archival practice, Ritchie signed up for Dryden’s Copyright for information Professionals course. She has also worked at archives, where she had learned that trying to figure out who might hold a copyright on so-called “orphan works,” where the author is unknown, can divert a lot of resources. What’s more, she said that while archivists know copyright is something they must “be mindful of, it’s not really unpacked” and, often, the framework behind copyright is not well understood.

Ritchie was thrilled to attend the Geneva conference as student, something most archivists don’t get the opportunity to do until they are well into their careers. “It was both career and life changing,” she said. “We were taken seriously by experts with more experience and credentials. It gave you a really good perspective on what’s going on.”