Wednesday 7 September 2011

By George, We’ve got Ourselves a Washington Declaration

Washington, D.C. is a busy place for copyright these days and not just on Capitol Hill.

At the end of last month, intellectual property experts from around the world gathered in the earthquake and hurricane afflicted city for the Global Congress on Intellectual Property and the Public Interest.  This particular blogger did not attend the Congress, preferring to stick to the earthquake-only danger zone of San Francisco.  However, readers can find a full report of the Congress from attendee Technolama here.

One of the accomplishments of the Global Congress was the creation of the Washington Declaration on Intellectual Property and the Public Interest, a document outlining the importance of reviewing the effects of changes made to the international intellectual property framework over the last few decades.


  1. IP is important, but so are other types of rights, “including human rights, consumer protection, competition and privacy” and IP laws should be drafted within the framework of these other laws. [It’s good to see recognition that people must act within the confines of many different laws, not just IP laws. However, one must wonder about the ranking of these different types of laws. Why should IP laws be drafted within the framework of say, consumer protection laws? Why not the other way around?]
  2. The public domain and openness are good things.  The public domain should be protected from further encroachment by term-lengthening and openness should be promoted.
  3. Exceptions and limitations to intellectual property rights are important, especially when designed to assist people with disabilities or for creating archives.  Countries should have flexibility to implement them as fit for their jurisdiction.
  4. Patent systems are out of wack and need to be redone.  New systems should encourage better incorporation of public interest priorities.

  5. Creative contributions to society matter and “rewarding and empowering authors and artists may be needed.”  To this end, new methods need to be explored.  “Such innovation can help to end today’s fruitless disputes over practices like noncommercial file-sharing.”
  6. Enforcement should be balanced; the punishment should fit the crime.
  7. Development is still a key concern.  Not only should development be considered in new IP laws, developing countries should also be assisted in taking full advantage of existing opportunities.
  8. New IP policies and laws should be based on research and evidence “rather than fait or ideology.”

Although the declaration does advocate scaling back some of the recent changes to intellectual property, it is not a pirate party type of manifesto.  The declaration is written and supported by a large group of intellectual property scholars and experts, and it asks for review, not for an overthrow of copyright.  The declaration recognizes the importance of intellectual property laws, “Intellectual property can promote innovation, creativity and cultural development.” But it also calls for a reexamination of current and proposed IP laws.

Many of the suggestions in the Washington Declaration are familiar, having come up in the context of the WIPO Development Agenda, a number of open licensing communities and many conversations this blogger has had with IP experts in Africa and Latin America.  Does this declaration represent a bigger push for change, and if so, are we getting close enough to the tipping point for an actual shift?

Those wishing to comment on or show their support for the Washington Declaration can do so at the above link. 

Photo: Washington D.C. cc-by John-Morgan available at

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