Richard Stallman has a simple message for the U.S. government about a proposed copyright treaty: Don’t even think about signing it. Stallman, the bearded, irascible creator of GNU Emacs and a spokesman for the free software movement, showed up at a U.S. Copyright Office roundtable on Tuesday to warn that the draft measure would imperil American programmers by encouraging frivolous software patents.
WASHINGTON — Richard Stallman has a simple message for the U.S. government about a proposed copyright treaty: Don’t even think about signing it.
Stallman, the bearded, irascible creator of GNU Emacs and a spokesman for the free software movement, showed up at a U.S. Copyright Office roundtable on Tuesday to warn that the draft measure would imperil American programmers by encouraging frivolous software patents.
“It appears disastrous for program developers,” Stallman said. “Many countries have laws about what kinds of software can be developed…. Everything relating to information should be taken out of this convention.”
The treaty in question is a heretofore obscure proposal known as the Hague Convention, which European nations generally support, but the U.S. State Department has criticized. If countries agree to the convention, they’d be required to enforce judgments in certain type of civil lawsuits brought in another jurisdiction.
That prospect lightens the hearts of entertainment lobbyists, who fear increasingly widespread piracy and the possibility of Napster clones arising in countries that don’t have laws restricting online file-sharing.
Currently the Hague Convention includes copyright offenses in a section that Stallman, Internet providers, and consumer groups are lobbying to remove. Stallman, for instance, claims countries that are even more permissive about awarding software patents could sue U.S. programmers for violating them — and thereby wreak havoc on the free software movement.
But Robert Raben, who spoke on Tuesday as a representative of the recording industry, warned that excluding copyright from the draft convention would be a mistake: “Its intentional exclusion at this point would be a terrible message to send to the world.”
This dispute eerily mirrors a similar spat between the entertainment industry and open source and hacking groups that also involves copyright law. At the behest of business lobbyists, Congress enacted the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which limits programmers’ ability to circumvent copy protection schemes and was the recent subject of an appeals court hearing.
Other speakers cautioned that it’s too late to perform radical surgery on the Hague Convention, which has been under discussion since 1992 and was tentatively adopted by the 49 member nations of the Hague Convention in June 1999. A two-stage diplomatic summit is scheduled to begin in June 2001 and resume in 2002.
“You can’t take it out of the convention, you just can’t do it,” said Marc Hankin, of Sonnenschein, Nath and Rosenthal, a law firm that deals with intellectual property disputes.
Only recently, however, have American businesses and nonprofit groups appeared to realize the sweeping scope of the treaty. (A U.S. Patent and Trademark Office request for comments last year went largely unheeded.)
Sarah Deutsch of Verizon said her employer opposed the Hague Convention. “I do think the convention is an expansion of the rights of copyright holders,” she said. In an earlier letter, Verizon said it had “significant concerns” with the measure.
Deutsch said that if the convention were adopted, Verizon would be required to filter content if a government that signed the treaty decided to ban a certain website. “ISPs don’t want to have to start filtering content,” Deutsch said.
While the First Amendment provides broad free-speech protection even to racist websites or anti-government discussions for the United States, other nations are far more restrictive. Last month, supporters of an unrelated treaty said it should outlaw “racist propaganda,” and the United Nations has discussed requiring permits for websites.
Perhaps the most high-profile case, however, is the ongoing dispute between France and Yahoo. In a closely watched ruling, a French judge ordered Yahoo to ban access by French viewers to an auction site with World War II material, including items originating in Nazi Germany.
Jeff Kovar of the U.S. State Department downplayed concerns with the convention, saying it would not substantially affect the enforcement of most foreign court decisions. “That wouldn’t change under the convention,” Kovar said.
Kovar also said the language could be tweaked by Congress, which would have to enact implementation legislation if the United States were to agree to the treaty.
Jamie Love, of the Ralph Nader-funded Consumer Project on Technology, said in an interview after the workshop that he believed enough people spoke out against the treaty to slow it, if not derail its adoption.
“A lot of people weighed in, in opposition to the convention moving forward,” said Love, the most vocal opponent of the convention. “Even the people who wanted copyright in said yeah, we’ve got a lot of problems with the convention.”
Love cautioned the entertainment industry against supporting the treaty without considering its unintended consequences.
“If an African country declares it has an intellectual property right in the rhythm, the beat, that comes out of its music, then under this convention Hollywood’s going to have to pay for ripping off their music,” Love said.
In a letter last year to Stallman of the GNU Project, Love said the treaty could affect the right to create hyperlinks to websites and even reverse-engineering: “A software developer living in the U.S. who does reverse engineering could face being sued in a country that banned reverse engineering.”
Author: Declan McCullagh
News Service: Wired News