If you listen to CEA or NAB, you’d think the sky was falling over the issue of the World Intellectual Property Organization’s Broadcast Treaty, under development by that Geneva-based organization, which coordinates IP policy among the world’s nations.
As valuable as WIPO’s work generally is, this treaty is a relatively minor document, and one of dubious value. Yet NAB and CEA are in vehement opposition over it, with CEA considering it another affront to consumers’ media-usage rights, while NAB calls it essential to the future of broadcasting.
So far, NAB’s voice seems to be winning in Washington, since the U.S. delegation to WIPO (led by our Patent and Trademark Office), is the treaty’s prime supporter. But its future remains in doubt nevertheless.
Briefly, the agreement would define a new intellectual property right for broadcast transmissions, regardless of whether the content is original to the broadcaster. Thus stations could claim “compilation rights” for transmission of content copyrighted by others (such as radio networks, syndicators, musicians, songwriters or record companies). This right is intended to provide broadcasters with legal standing that could be used to prosecute unauthorized use of their broadcasts internationally.
While this sounds like a good deal for broadcasters, experts point out that the concept is not well established in the IP community, and a similar attempt at a compilation-based copyright for databases has been stuck in legal limbo for years.
Yet even if the treaty passed, it would have no real force until its provisions are enacted into local law. Numerous similar international treaties go unsigned by many countries, including the United States, and even in signatory nations, it can take years for the corresponding legislation to pass – if it ever does.
Moreover, the treaty would only make it illegal to circumvent protected broadcast streams, so most existing analog or unprotected digital broadcasting (such as IBOC) would not be covered anyway. This makes NAB’s support of the treaty seem a bit strange, at least from a radio perspective, since it primarily applies to the protected environment of cable and satellite broadcasts, not to today’s free-to-air terrestrial broadcasting.
Finally, WIPO itself is considering dropping the treaty effort, or scaling it back to cover only simple signal theft – and international signal theft at that, since most countries already have their own domestic signal-theft laws. An attempt to keep the treaty on the table may be what’s behind the recent upturn of U.S. activity on the treaty.
The trade organizations should worry about more important matters, and our PTO should get back to its main job of stimulating American innovation by concentrating on its already overfilled plate of patent applications. We all have better things to do.