Intellects for sale
The debate over intellectual property rights, while not new to the Arab world, is gaining unprecedented momentum: Dina Ezzat
follows the latest developments
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From top: fairs remain one of the outlets for purchasing original books; Mrs Mubarak receiving an award at the first Arab International Copyright Conference; accessing original international music records and movies comes at a very high price for many in the developing world
A two-day event held last week on the fringe of the Cairo Book Fair served as a reminder of the growing interest in intellectual rights. An initiative of the Arab Publishers Union, in collaboration with the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) and the International Publishers Union -- sponsored by Mrs Suzanne Mubarak -- the First Arab International Copyright Conference did not draw in a huge audience, testifying to the fact that interest in property rights is as yet more or less restricted to specialists. The conference did receive extensive media coverage, but this was due largely to the participation of Mrs Mubarak rather than to any real awareness of the importance of the issue.
"What is copyright -- what does it mean?" The taxi driver inquired, perplexed. "I've never heard of any such thing." As it turned out, this reaction was far more common than one might expect -- extending across classes and groups; some university students showed the same unfamiliarity with the concept. Yet there is a small coterie of people who are not only aware of, but concerned with, intellectual property rights in the Arab world.
The topic of the conference, though discussed in the context of Egypt, was crucial for many other parts of the Arab world -- "copyright and development: from cultural diversity to social prosperity". The first message was simple enough: literary, artistic and scientific works and inventions, including performances and broadcasts, for example, are subject to copyright legislation, which, as the WIPO defines it, is part of the wider body of jurisdiction known as intellectual property law. After that other topics were discussed, in turn: cultural and development policy; the role of Arab publishers; copyright and education reform; creativity in the Arab world; and, most importantly, the impact of copyright, or the lack thereof, on developing countries, from both the economic and cultural perspective.
The event had more speakers than audience members; and they did not delve too deeply into technical and indeed confusing issues like branding, trademarks, service marks and commercial designations. Nor was there much attempt at engaging the participants in an academic debate about the difference between industrial and intellectual property, the one covering invention and design patents, the other artistic and literary work. The idea was rather to spread awareness of the significance, legitimacy, economic and artistic value of copyright. As Mrs Mubarak put it in the opening speech, "we are here to discuss the direct, inevitable link between concepts of culture and wider social development." According to Chairman of the Arab Publishers Union Ibrahim El-Moallem, indeed, the conference was intended to shed light on how someone like Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz never reaped the fruits of his labours to the full -- because of the absence of copyright.
In straightforward language, one speaker after another shared their views and offered perspectives on how the observation of copyright could make a difference not only to those who own it as "creators" entitled to the rewards, both financial and moral, but equally, as many speakers insisted, for society at large. Speakers found an endless variety of ways to express the benefits of copyright: without copyrights the publishing industry would collapse, sooner or later; the introduction of adequate copyright laws in Canada in the 1970s helped enliven the literary sphere and raised the volume of book production very significantly; copyright is the way to encourage gifted individuals to pursue creativity knowing that they could make a living out of it; without copyright, including traditional knowledge in Egypt and much of the Arab world, a lot would be in danger of misappropriation.
Speaking to a largely well informed audience of publishers and writers, the conference participants were nonetheless aware of the sensitivities involved in the wider audience's response to economic impact of new legislation on access to knowledge. "Books," as Ali, a doctor on his way into the fair grounds complained, "are very expensive this year -- or so I'm hearing. I'm just going to have a look at what's on offer." This complaint is increasingly widespread, and has even extended to curricula and research books: one university teacher explained that the high prices of novels and plays included in her literature curriculum are one reason why students depend, rather, on inexpensive summaries: "If a student can buy the summary for LE5 instead of spending LE50 on the original or even LE20 on a photocopy of it from the university library, well, can you really blame them?"
Addressing that concern, speakers referred to business communities providing for the cost of books and other educational material -- a partnership between the government and civil society. Local, less expensive copies of books and films should also be considered for developing countries. According to the WIPO director-general Kamil Idris, who took part in the conference, the organisation is in the process of examining cooperative programmes with developing countries that would adopt a developmental rather than purely commercial approach of some publishers and insensitive legislators. Idris was convinced that, across the Arab world, there is a growing awareness of the "importance of copyright" and indeed a clearer sense of how to approach the issue from a developmental standpoint.
The WIPO is currently engaged in debating how to pursue its work along a developmental path. Originally proposed by a group of southern American states, the WIPO Development Agenda has support from a considerable number of Arab countries, particularly those with limited resources. Later this month the WIPO General Assembly will convene at the Geneva headquarters to discuss the proposal, which is particularly welcome in that it extends to patent rights and the transfer of technology. For Idris as for many others it is not impossible to find a common ground on which property rights can be managed without incurring negative consequences on the progress of developing countries. As WIPO experts point out, while some creations -- scientific inventions, for example -- are immediately entered into the public domain, there is plenty of room for the priceless cultural products of poorer societies to be profitably transferred from the public into the private domain.
According to Anthony Taubman, acting director of the global intellectual property issues division of the WIPO, "when it comes to traditional knowledge and biotechnology, the sky is the limit for the right of traditional communities to benefit from the laws and regulations of copyrights. The protection of cultural expression -- including the obviously and repeatedly misappropriated ethnic music and paintings, traditional medicine and generic resources is wide." Taubman gave numerous examples of cases in which researchers from pharmaceutical multinationals have arrived in traditional communities and helped themselves to indigenous techniques and knowledge -- taking it back to the rich countries for the benefit of able consumers and allowing the profit to be funnelled directly into the pockets of the factory owners, without the communities in which that knowledge developed over centuries gaining anything in return; knowledge is as such "illicitly" acquired.
Taubman, who has been working closely with Arab countries, believes that a good portion of the developing world is increasingly aware of the possibilities -- so much that such awareness has prompted a debate on the need for an internationally binding treaty. "Arab countries are in a very good position with regard to this issue," he said, adding that, "a regional position" to be adopted by the Arab group within the WIPO could be "very influential in this respect". When all is said and done, according to the WIPO, Arab countries have much to gain from an overall copyright-patenting regime.
According to Cynthia Cannady, director of the intellectual property and new technologies division at the WIPO, patenting in areas related to oil and natural gas as well as water desalinisation is something in which Arab countries could make leaps and strides, provided they invested in the required effort and resources. During recent tours, Cannady sensed a growing awareness among officials that, where desalinisation plants are available, desalinisation technology is needed, where hospitals are available, medical research centres are needed. As Idris puts it, "Arab countries need to learn that protecting culture is as important, if not more, than having access to oil. Arab scientists need to learn how to benefit more from patenting rights."
According to Maha Bekhit, director of the Arab League Intellectual Property Rights, there have been efforts on the part of both the WIPO and her own organisation to promote copyright and patenting since a memorandum of understanding was signed in 2000 with the aim of strengthening cooperation. Through Intellectual Property Offices established in 19 out of the 22 member states (Comors, Somalia and Iraq are the exceptions), the Arab League has been promoting both public awareness of and academic training on the issue. The secretariat has allocated financial and technical resources to addressing the issue with governments and non- governmental bodies alike. "We have held workshops and seminars," she said, "but it is such a long process. Technical issues require time and patience to resolve."
Both Bekhit and WIPO Arab office coordinators are aware of the possibility of confusion between the WIPO and the World Trade Organisation TRIPS agreement, which is notoriously associated with allowing rich countries to deny poor societies access to developed medication. Such confusion, they concede, is not without reason, since patenting is also connected with medical innovations. But their hope is that it will eventually be clear that, where the WIPO is concerned, developing countries stand to gain rather than lose. Arab states, Bekhit announced, have been called upon by the League to develop national strategies for intellectual property as well as study the economic impact of embracing intellectual property rights in the Arab world. Such measures are needed.
Arab countries have a long way to go before they can bridge the intellectual-property divide separating them from others, even developing countries. They have much to worry about: the shocking difference between copyright and patenting in their societies and in Israel, for example. Last week's conference was a step in that direction. According to WIPO and Arab League officials, much hard work remains to be done to make sure that Arab countries do not continue to lag behind for much longer -- even if they are to do so out of fear of the possibility of negative consequences vis-à-vis education and medication.