Thoughts on the Washington Declaration on Intellectual Property Rights

I’m not a specialist in intellectual property, but I have had to gen up on IP rights in the digital domain over the last few years as part of my work first at Panos London, and then on the WITNESS Hub. Watching the creeping impact of IP restrictions and protections on human rights – principally on freedom of expression, but also extending into other rights – it’s been quite concerning there has not appeared to be a more international, cross-cutting and holistic effort from civil society to push back on corporate rights holders, and on legislators at the national and international level.

But then a few months ago came the mammoth and fascinating SSRC report on Media Piracy in Emerging Economies. And now comes the extremely impressive Washington Declaration on Intellectual Property and the Public Interest, which takes a wide view across the range of the impacts of this IP creep, and still manages to present a compelling and specific case for a more progressive IP regime. I urge you to read it

A few brief thoughts on the text from a non-specialist…

I was particularly heartened to see the centrality of human rights in the declaration and in the legal framework that should govern IP:

Use human rights, including civil and political and social and economic rights, to scrutinize expansions of intellectual property rights that threaten access to essential knowledge goods and services.

And likewise the importance of archives in the digital age (although it would have been interesting to see inclusion of human rights and justice-focused archives too):

Promote limitations and exceptions that enable libraries, museums, archives and other “institutions of memory” to fulfill their public interest missions, while assuring that cultural and educational institutions take advantage of existing flexibilities.

As well as the inclusion of a specific section advocating for “development agendas to infuse all levels of international and national intellectual property policy making” is critically important and long overdue.

I did note, however, the continued absence of something I’ve discussed with a few specialists working in this domain, and which comes up in the recent report I worked on with WITNESS, Cameras Everywhere, namely whether material that is directly related to human rights in particular might be given a special status within the definition of “public interest”. This section comes close, with its “socially valuable”:

Recognize the continued role of public funding for types of production deemed socially valuable and systematically under-provisioned by the market, such as small-market audiovisual, musical and artistic culture.

Notwithstanding that debate, the Washington Declaration stands as a hugely important step forward in building critical mass in civil society for more progressive IP regimes worldwide, and I’m fascinated to see what impact it has on policy-making and advocacy alike.

[Addition: here’s a post from the professor at AU who hosted the meeting at which the Declaration was formed. He urges you to sign it – I’m #657…]


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