For the first time, library, education and research organizations around the world joined the call by South Africa and India for the World Trade Organization (WTO) to temporarily suspend its rules on intellectual property necessary to support the prevention, containment and treatment of COVID-19. The call is co-sponsored by 57 developing countries, mostly in Africa.
EIFL contributed to drafting the statement released on 22 March 2021 by global civil society groups, that was signed by over 250 prominent researchers, copyright experts and organizations including EIFL partner consortia in Kenya, Lesotho, Lithuania, Uganda and Zimbabwe.
The statement, that focuses particular attention on the need to include copyright rules within the WTO waiver proposal, points to two ways that access to copyrighted works is needed to support responses to COVID-19.
First, by enabling people to access their libraries and educational institutions from home during the pandemic. “In too many countries, copyright laws do not enable remote digital uses of works for essential activities. Educational uses are too often limited to activities ‘within’ educational institutions or in ‘face to face’ teaching. Uses of the collections of libraries and other public repositories are often limited to ‘the premises’ of such institutions,” the statement explains. People in need of essential materials must therefore run the risk of travelling to libraries or educational institutions, or suspend their work.
Second, access to copyright-protected works may be necessary for developing COVID-19 treatments. Again, in too many countries, researchers lack the rights they need to use the most advanced research methodologies, such as text and data mining, to help find and develop treatments to COVID-19.
Press briefing launching global statement of support
At a press briefing to launch the statement, EIFL joined leaders from the education and research communities setting out why emergency alterations to copyright rules are needed. Panelists shared examples of copyright barriers in the development of medical technologies, repair of medical devices, research activities, online education and accessing library collections.
From the library field, Dick Kawooya, School of Information Science, University of South Carolina, outlined problems using print collections in libraries during lockdown, while Denise Nicholson, Scholarly Horizons, South Africa, highlighted specific difficulties accessing essential textbooks, most of which are not available in electronic format. Teresa Hackett, EIFL Copyright and Libraries Programme Manager described how voluntary measures by publishers temporarily lifting contractual restrictions to electronic resources, while welcome, are not sufficient. In many cases, expanded access has already expired so that full access to journals and e-books, as needed during the pandemic, is inconsistent and unpredictable making it difficult for faculty to plan ahead.
The press briefing was opened by a leading proponent of the TRIPS waiver proposal, Mr. Mustaqeem De Gama, Counsellor, South African Permanent Mission to the WTO.
The WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) sets minimum standards that all national copyright laws must comply with, under penalty of WTO dispute resolution and sanction. According to many experts, the WTO rules are creating hesitancy by countries to take the immediate action required to waive copyright rules blocking activities needed to prevent, contain and treat COVID-19.
Discussions on the TRIPS waiver proposal will continue at the WTO, in advance of the next regular meeting of the TRIPS Council scheduled for 8-9 June 2021.
- Read the statement on Copyright and the Proposal of a Waiver from Certain Provisions of the TRIPS Agreement for the Prevention, Containment and Treatment of COVID-19 (IP/C/W/669).
- Read the press release with examples of copyright barriers.
- View the press briefing recording (just over 1 hour).