'Freely accessible, yes; free of charge, no." These words about information in the Internet age are attributed to Bruce Lehman, the US commissioner of patents and trademarks. But they should be a touchstone for all participants in the current 160-nation copyright negotiations in Geneva, where Mr. Lehman heads the US delegation. Since copyright revision has been slow in the past, and global information delivery is rushing to the future, it's important to expedite sound international agreements for protecting the interests of both the consuming public and the providers of information.
Technology is moving ahead to enable Internet distributors of information to get some proportional equivalent to what people pay for newspapers, books, records, or cable TV. Right now cyberspace is full of words, images, sounds, and software in digital forms easily copied, transferred, or pirated.
It's one thing to hit upon an author who says, "Be my guest," inviting you to download his stories free, even print them out if you don't sell them. Many other goodies are available on the Internet, including library catalogs, classics in the public domain, and no-charge computer software.
It's another thing to let almost everything be free, depriving "intellectual property" originators of royalties or other returns they have been entitled to "BD," before digitization.
How to find the proper balance is the challenge to the World Intellectual Property Organization Conference scheduled to continue to Dec. 20 in Geneva. No one said it would be easy when there are such issues as whether a private user's look at something transmitted on the Internet technically constitutes making a copy that should somehow be paid for.
The US is reportedly offering strong copyright protections of a kind refused in legislative proposals during the 104th Congress. Library and education groups have expressed concern that these would inhibit "fair use" - referring to use of copyrighted materials to a degree and for purposes that are permitted by law.
Before leaving Washington for the conference, Mr. Lehman reportedly said, "We are protecting people against the theft of their intellectual property, not trying to stop fair use.... We don't want to have any impeding of the free flow of information.... If anyone can demonstrate that we are going to do something in Geneva that will not serve those purposes, we will fix it."
Indeed, whatever does not serve those purposes should be fixed.
Meanwhile, many are giving thought to practical ways of providing uncomplicated access for consumers and some remuneration for writers, artists, and other copyright holders in the vastnesses of the World Wide Web. Comparisons are made to ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers) and BMI (Broadcast Music Inc.), which collect money from users of copyrighted material and distribute it to originators without every work being paid for on a one-time basis. The Copyright Clearance Center facilitates permissions for use of copyrighted material through a membership of providers and users. The Audio Home Recording Act of 1992 lets you make a digital recording of a favorite CD without copyright hassle. Digital music originators share in a royalty system to which a manufacturer or importer pays a small percentage of the price of digital recording equipment sold to you.
Just a few things to think about when we sit down at the computer with the digitized world as our oyster.