An international Internet copyright proposal has drawn fire from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which claims the pact could constrict Internet use and "undermine" US copyright law.
The EFF is the latest group to oppose proposed revisions to the 100-year-old Bern Convention on copyright protection. This week in Geneva, the United Nations' World Intellectual Property Organisation launched an international conference to hammer out updates covering digital media, including transmissions over the Internet, software and databases.
The EFF is urging the US to withdraw the proposals from the Geneva negotiations until they have been debated further in the US. A US Patent and Trademark Office official, however, says any results of the negotiations will ultimately have to be ratified by the US Congress, as would any changes to US copyright law. The US delegation is headed by Bruce Lehman, commissioner of Patents and Trademarks and assistant commerce secretary.
"We're supporting updating and clarifying existing copyright laws to take into account the changes in this digital age," says Lisa-Joy Zgorski, press secretary for the Patent and Trademark Office.
The EFF has found flaws with two of the three proposed treaty updates, those covering databases and artistic works. Among its complaints, the EFF claims the treaties could hold Internet and online service providers responsible for copyright infringements by users of their networks, and could make encryption-cracking and reverse engineering tools illegal. The treaties could also inhibit browsing of copyrighted materials on the Web, since Web information temporarily copied onto a computer's memory could be seen as a "reproduction" of the work.
The EFF also claims that the treaties do not recognise "fair use" provisions that are found in current US copyright law -- that is, that private citizens and schools can make limited copies of copyrighted materials for noncommercial use. And it believes the database law could enable private companies who develop government databases to copyright the material, even though the database information is in the public domain.
"We're really concerned about so many of the things that are proposed," says Shari Steele, an attorney for the EFF.
Zgorski, however, says that the US delegation is sensitive to fair use concerns, particularly in cases where using the electronic medium requires temporarily copying material. It is also sensitive to liability concerns of ISPs.
"No one wants to be unreasonable," Zgorski says. "If service providers are truly passive and there are pirated or counterfeited works on their site... there should be exception from liability in those cases."
The EFF is on the World Wide Web at http://www.eff.com.