digitization of information generation and distribution has renewed
the debate on copyright laws. Those who are able to download and
reproduce online materials rave about the vast resources—books,
music, videos—they are able to access very easily. On the other
hand, commercial producers of such materials are crying “Foul!
That’s a crime! An infringement of copyright laws!” Meanwhile, those who are neither commercial producers nor heavy internet
users such as women in poor rural and urban communities have not been
part of the debates let alone decision-making on these issues despite
the fact that developments on copyright laws impact on their
knowledge production and access to information.
writer Mavic Cabrera-Balleza interviewed Heather Ford, Founder
of the African Commons Project, a South African NGO with the goal of
mobilizing communities through active participation in collaborative
technology. Ford has worked in the fields of internet policy, law and
management in South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States.
She sheds light on some of these issues.
Cabrera-Balleza (MCB): Copyright is regarded as a form of protection
of authors or artists’ rights to their creative, intellectual,
scientific, or artistic work. It prevents the general public from
accessing their work without crediting them or paying to use or
access their work. Does this original concept of copyright
remain to this day? Why or why not?
Ford (HF): Actually, copyright prevents anyone from “copying” a
work without permission from the copyright holder—except under
specific 'fair use' or 'fair dealing' circumstances or when the work
is in the public domain. This concept of copyright is still in force
today, but there are two differences that have prompted a call for
change to copyright laws. The first is that copyright has grown in
term and scope over the years—with the effect that the original
balance in the rights of the public to access knowledge for education
and development is now tilted in favor of corporations rather than
the public or creators themselves. The second is that, on the
internet, when you browse or read a page, you're making a temporary
copy of that page on your hard drive, technically breaking the law
since you're making a copy without permission. This fundamental
difference (and its numerous effects) means that copyright law is out
of synch with current technological practice and emerging business
How does the implementation of copyright laws vary from one
country to another? Are there differences in the way they are
implemented in the Global South and Global North countries?
Implementation and enforcement of copyright laws tends to vary pretty
extensively between developed and developing nations. This is mostly
because the police and defence departments in developing countries
tend to be very over-stretched already, and copyright enforcement
tends to be lower on the list of their priorities. Also, because of
the state of telecommunications infrastructure in many developing
countries, the nature of infringement often differs - for example,
illegal file-sharing tends to be enforced much more in developed
countries because in developing countries infringement is more in the
Do local communities that possess traditional and communal forms of
knowledge—such as alternative forms of healing and organic
agricultural techniques—have the same protection as copyright
owners? Why or why not?
Technically they have the same protection, but the thing about
copyright is that something has to be written in order for it to be
protected, and it doesn't do well to articulate how the benefits of
communally-owned knowledge should be shared. This effectively means
that these forms of knowledge are often prey to the individual or
company that first decides to write it down or close off this
knowledge through intellectual property laws.
Some anti-globalization activists refer to piracy as the revenge of
the Global South. What is your opinion on this?
Yes and no. I think that piracy is not a black or white issue. Piracy
of Microsoft products in developing countries, for example, has
actually had the effect of later locking those countries into
Microsoft products down the line; and piracy of western films has
been argued to create monoculture in developing countries. On the
other hand, the supposed revenues that are being "lost" due
to piracy is a "problem" that many intellectual property
holders complain about—and it's something that they can do very
little to control. So in that sense, I guess it is a kind of revenge
What are the alternatives to patented and copyrighted products? Are
they fully utilized—for example, are a lot of people aware of them
and use them?
The free and open source software and open content communities use
'copyleft' and open licenses to enable people to copy and remix their
products legally by specifying upfront what uses they will allow.
Creative Commons (CC) enables copyright-holders to choose a license
that specifies that people can copy and share the work for
non-commercial licenses, for example. There are six different
combinations that you can choose according to the license choices. At
last count, there were 150 million works licensed under CC, and CC is
becoming the standard for sharing non-commercial educational
material, science and other research online. On the software side,
the majority of web servers around the world are run on Linux,[an
operating system which is one of the most prominent examples of free
and open source software collaboration]—and uses in mobile
[telephones] and desktop [computers] are rising.
What are the gender dimensions to the discussion on copyrights,
copyright alternatives and access to knowledge? For
example, does piracy enable women to have access to information that
might be specifically useful to them ?
I think there are many ways to answer this question, but I think one
of the most important issues is that women tend to be more involved
in communal maintenance of knowledge systems, and as such do not fit
within the copyright paradigm of individual/corporate control. For
this reason, I think that women should get more involved in
developing new alternatives to default copyright control— and to
start to tackle the problem of community-owned knowledge systems and
how the benefits should be shared in a future intellectual property
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