Authors' Rights for all

This piece, and the outline for a global campaign, are extracted from the papers for the Authors' Rights Summit. Credit is due to all members of the organising committee, but especially to Anne Louise Schelin of the Danish Union of Journalists.

INTELLECTUAL property is the acknowledged gold dust of the new economy. Journalists work with information, the Issue intro most tradeable commodity in the world today - and the economic currency of the future. Exploitation of intellectual property rights is an urgent subject for virtually every government, major company and every economic forum worldwide.

In the first half of the 1990s, when visions of the World Wide Web and the Information Society became a hot topic the world over, many people felt that copyright systems would not be able to survive. Especially the Continental European system of Authors' Rights which was thought of as old-fashioned and out-of-date.

Basic rights...

In the European system of Authors' Rights, the right to be named as the author (or performer, for that matter) and the right of protection of the artistic or journalistic integrity of a creator and his or her work have immense importance. They help preserve our cultural heritage and they ensure public access to authentic scientific, documentary and artistic works.

These so-called "moral rights" are also a prerequisite for a decent press characterised by editorial independence, high standards and quality. The sound development of democratic society depends on the ability of the press to secure free access to information and freedom of expression. It also depends on the ability of the press to fulfil the role of public watchdog.

Under Authors' Rights laws, economic rights can be transferred from the author by contract - but moral rights can no more be waived than can human rights. This is also the case for authors who create their works in the course of employment.

...or commodity?

Under the copyright system in the US, the UK and other countries with equivalent laws, however, employers are the first owner of the entire copyright in the work of their employees, who have no moral rights. In the USA, no writer or news photographer has any moral rights. In the UK, there are no such rights in any work "made for the purpose of reporting current events," and even where they exist freelance authors can be pressed to waive them.

The lack of moral rights protection of journalistic works (and other works) in the countries that follow the legal tradition of the Anglo-American system of copyright is in conflict with the Berne Convention - the international law on Authors' Rights - and with basic human rights. Article 27 (2) of the UN Human Rights Declaration states:

  • Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.

We can win

In the early 1990s, European publishers and producers vigorously lobbied the European Commission, claiming that Europe would be completely unable to compete with the rest of the world, and in particular the USA, if Authors' Rights legislation was not "harmonised down" toward the copyright system.

These views found many supporters. It took years of lobbying by authors and performers, legal experts and others to shift this perception. But the European Commission and the European Parliament have acknowledged that moral rights are important for the sake of authenticity, quality, high standards and to help preserve the European cultural heritage.

EU directives, including the proposed "Directive on the harmonisation of certain aspects of copyright and related rights in the information society", represent a victory for the Continental European system. However, EU Member States have been left free to decide for themselves whether they wish to adopt statutory transfer of rights or legal presumptions of transfer where employed authors (or authors who otherwise work for hire) are concerned.

These directives have not solved the problems of the authors and performers of the UK, Ireland and the Netherlands. They are left with completely inadequate protection.

There are other challenges. The so-called "TRIPS agreement" of the World Trade Organization can be perceived as a victory for the copyright system (and thus for producers and publishers) because it reinforces the notion that our words and pictures are purely commodities. Authors and performers do not want the harmonisation of Authors' Rights to take place within trade-related fora. These questions should be dealt with by the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO).

The media for which we work are increasingly globalised in their reach and ownership. Authors' Rights, and our campaign to defend and strengthen them, need to be global too.

June    2000
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Last modified: 08 Jun 2000
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