U.N. body weighs updating copyright laws Internet commercial future is on the line in Geneva


Billions of dollars and the commercial future of the Internet are on the line as Clinton administration officials, media and technology executives and consumer advocates meet in Geneva today to discuss a stack of controversial proposals for overhauling copyright law.

In the first government-level meeting in decades of the World Intellectual Property Organization, participants hope to update international law for the digital age. Cyberspace is widely seen as the future distribution medium for books, movies, music and software, and the participants agree that an effective copyright protection is essential to its development. But that's where the consensus ends.

The United Nations body's proposals, contained in three draft treaties and strongly supported by the Clinton administration, have already produced a rancorous debate in the United States, the world's biggest exporter of intellectual property.

Supporters of the treaties say they are merely a common-sense extension of existing property rights, but opponents characterize them as a sweeping power grab by big media conglomerates.

A bill updating U.S. copyright laws, which contained many of the same provisions as the main proposed international treaty, stalled in Congress last year. But ratification of a treaty would boost its chances for success next time around, and the jockeying for position in Geneva will serve as a prelude for the coming domestic debate, participants say.

Entertainment and publishing companies backing the new measures want to extend copyright protection to new kinds of intellectual property and strengthen protections against piracy, which digital technology makes easier than ever.

But public advocates and some communications and computer companies say the draft treaty threatens the rights of consumers. Giving copyright owners too much power, they argue, will impose unacceptable policing requirements on Internet service providers and stifle its growth as a democratic communications medium.

Pub Date: 12/02/96

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