WIPO’s missed opportunity to produce guidance on copyright exceptions hits education during pandemic

published 8 December 2020 updated 10 December 2020

A legal instrument on copyright exceptions for the use of materials for teaching, learning, research, and the work of cultural heritage organisations is still not available. According to Education International, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) missed an opportunity at its recent Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights (SCCR) to show leadership on this issue.

Education International represented the voice of teachers, education support personnel, and researchers at the 40th session of the WIPO SCCR, held virtually from 16 –20 November. However, the meeting failed to produce guidance on COVID-19-related intellectual property challenges for education, research, and cultural heritage organisations.

Lack of progress has contributed to crisis in using digital works

In 2012, the SCCR was mandated to work towards a legal instrument on copyright exceptions for the use of materials for teaching, learning, research, and the work of cultural heritage organisations. For many years, WIPO experts, researchers, and stakeholders have stressed the importance for governments to update their national laws to address the use of digital and other materials as well as to work on international legislative solutions for international problems. However, progress has been stagnating, which has now partially contributed to the crisis in using digital works for education and research during the COVID–19 pandemic.

Far-reaching consequences

“In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, never before has the subject of copyright limitations and exceptions been more pertinent for educational and research purposes,” said Tanyaradzwa Manhombo, who spoke on behalf of the African countries. “Open-source publications on health research are essential to the common human endeavour, to find a solution to this global health challenge. Furthermore, children in developing countries have been denied online access to educational research materials because of copyright restrictions.”

Education International shared the perspective of teachers who have been going above and beyond the call of duty to ensure continuity of educationand research activities. However, as teachers did so, they were denied access to essential digital materials, and forced to work in legal grey zones or use essential works at the risk of being prosecuted. “What is legal in the classroom, like reading a story to children, is suddenly illegal when using internet platforms, TV stations, or telephones. This needs to be urgently addressed.”

Time for WIPO to stand up

Education International acknowledged that legislative changes cannot happen fast enough to address the difficult situation facing many teachers today. And it urged the SCCR and WIPO, as a UN agency, to provide guidance to member states to navigate through the challenges facing the sector. “We hope that similar, to other UN agencies, WIPO will provide urgently needed guidance in the form of a declaration in relation to exceptions and limitations in times of COVID-19, as well as commission studies that investigate the challenges teachers and researchers face in this health emergency,” said Robert Jeyakumar, MOVE, on behalf of Education International.

While this SCCR missed providing a platform to discuss the COVID-19 pandemic and what it means for its agenda item on exceptions and limitations, Education International hopes that WIPO and its SCCR might be ready in 2021 to take leadership on developing a declaration and providing the urgently needed guidance.