A 10-year effort to negotiate an international treaty updating broadcasters’ rights for the digital age has run aground, with little prospect of rescue in the foreseeable future.
Member states of the World Intellectual Property Organisation, meeting in Geneva, decided at the end of last week not to set a date for concluding a pact after it became clear that governments were still hopelessly split on how much protection from piracy broadcasters should be given.
“There was no agreement on any of the fundamental issues of the treaty,” Paul Salmon, head of the US delegation, said.
International rules to protect television broadcasts have not been updated since the 1961 Rome convention, drafted at a time when cable was in its infancy and the internet not even invented.
Now that perfect digital copies of television programmes can be made and transmitted with a few mouse clicks, signal theft has become a big commercial headache for broadcasting organisations around the world.
However, developing countries in Latin America and Asia, led by Brazil and India, have opposed the push by European and African governments for broad new rights that would protect television programmes from unauthorised retransmission for up to 50 years.
Critics say the proposed new rights would overlay existing copyrights, restrict access to programme content that is now in the public domain, prevent legitimate private copying for personal use, and stifle technological innovation.
The US voice, which could have proved influential, has been largely absent from the latest debate, as technology and communications companies such as Intel and Verizon have made clear their opposition to the stronger rights favoured by the majority of US broadcasters.
European television companies, which already enjoy stronger protection at home than the Rome convention provides, say they may now give up on Wipo and see what they can get in bilateral and regional agreements.
“If Wipo is not the right forum for this issue to be addressed then broadcasters will need to raise [their] concerns at regional or bilateral level instead,” said Tom Rivers, external legal adviser to the Association of Commercial Television in Europe (ACT).