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Copyright laws to get new look

Spurred on by the rapid global expansion of the Internet and other forms of digital media, attorneys, diplomats and trade association reps are meeting in Geneva to revise intellectual copyright laws.

It’s the first time in 25 years that the World Intellectual Property Organization, a United Nations body, has convened to approve new treaties: one for literary and artistic works, one for the rights of performers and a third for producers of databases – a term, pointed out L.A. attorney Elliot Brown of Irell & Manella, that can include books as well as collections of computer data.

The purpose of the gathering is to ensure that electronic transmission of copyrighted work is subject to the same rules as other works. Non-sanctioned electronic distribution of copyrighted work would be illegal, and rules regarding public-domain works would also be tightened.

According to Axel aus der Muhlen, general counsel for the Motion Picture Assn. of America, the process that led to the gathering “has been going on for the last five or six years.”

The MPAA has been monitoring the treaty-writing carefully, and the org’s senior VP Chris Marchich is attending the confab. “It’s important for us because like all industries that deal with copyrights, the motion picture business is significantly impacted by international distribution.”

In 1971, when international copyright treaties were last formed, digital media and electronic transmission of material weren’t significant concerns, as they are today.

Gap protection

“Electronic transmissions will become more important for many industries, including ours. We want to close gaps in protection and clarify protections that do exist for technologies like video-on-demand,” said Aus der Muhlen.

Though reps of studios contacted by Daily Variety said they weren’t aware of anyone from their company traveling to the gathering in Geneva, Aus der Muhlen said studio execs wouldn’t normally be among those in attendance.

“It’s not something the studios would attend,” he said. “The people who go are representatives of governments and non-governmental organizations, not companies.”

But in the digital area, execs at studios – particularly those in new media departments – are acutely aware of the need to protect corporate assets. In particular, studios are aware of the power of computers to manipulate images as well as make the images easily accessible.

Online domination

“The means of distribution for all electronic media are converging,” said Jim Banister, VP and general manager of Warner Bros. Online. “The ones most closely aligned with the Internet, and the ones affected most by new methods of transmission, are TV, radio and homevideo. Any of the intellectual property issues relating to those businesses are directly applicable to the Internet.”

Some U.S. attorneys, however, are concerned that the treaties under consideration in Geneva are being pushed through without enough consideration from Stateside legislative bodies.

“It used to be that deliberations would occur in Congress, then we’d go forward with the process of addressing international questions,” said Brown.

“This time, it hasn’t happened,” he continued. “The U.S. should be a leader in international property law, but in this instance it looks like we’re following the lead of the European Union without any justification for it.”

William Coats, an attorney at Brown & Bain in Palo Alto, specializes in intellectual property issues that pertain to digital media. He, too, believes that the U.S. is moving too fast in Geneva.

“We should reach agreements domestically before we ask the rest of the world to follow these rules. I’m not sure everything they’re proposing there is going to fly in Congress, and it might be embarrassing to the U.S.,” said Coats.

‘We want to close gaps in protection and clarify protections that do exist for technologies like video-on-demand.”

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