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Copyright and Human Rights – Intricate Relationship

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Manish Jindal

December 6, 2023

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Do you know what is the relationship between copyright and human rights?

In the grand tapestry of the legal and social realms, two threads – copyright and human rights – weave together in complex patterns that are often overlooked or misunderstood.

While on the surface these two areas might seem worlds apart, a closer examination reveals a nuanced interplay between the two.

Copyright, designed to protect the intellectual creations of individuals, intersects with human rights, the foundational principles that safeguard the dignity, freedom, and equality of all human beings.

In the digital age, this intersection has grown even more pronounced, raising compelling questions about access to information, freedom of expression, and economic rights.


Is Copyright a Human Right? – Copyright and Human Rights

The interplay between copyright and human rights is a multi-dimensional one, and the question of whether copyright can be characterised as a human right itself requires a comprehensive exploration of both legal and philosophical terrains.

1. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and Copyright:

Article 27 of the UDHR provides that:

Everyone has the right to freely participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.


From the second part of this article, it is evident that the foundational human rights document recognises a form of copyright as a human right, in that creators have a right to the protection of their intellectual creations.

2. The Balance Between Rights:

While copyright is implicitly recognised as a human right, it is not an absolute right.

It’s designed to strike a balance. On one hand, it rewards creators by granting them exclusive rights, incentivising creation and innovation.

On the other, it aims to benefit society by allowing the dissemination of knowledge and culture.

When copyright overly restricts access to works or hinders creativity, it can clash with other human rights, such as the right to education, access to information, or freedom of expression.

3. The Duration of Copyright:

One of the contentious aspects of the system, especially in its relationship with human rights, is the duration.

While human rights, by their nature, are perennial and inherent, copyright is temporal.

After a specified period, copyrighted works enter the public domain, becoming freely available to the public.

Some argue that extending  durations excessively can impinge on societal access to cultural and educational resources.

4. The Digital Age and Implications for Human Rights:

The advent of the internet and digital technologies has transformed how we create, share, and consume content.

Digital Rights Management (DRM) tools, employed to prevent unauthorised copying or sharing, can sometimes conflict with rights such as freedom of expression or the right to access information, especially when they restrict legitimate uses of works.

Impact of Copyright in Human Rights

The interface between copyright and human rights is an intricate one, where the objectives of promoting creativity and protecting fundamental human rights often intersect, sometimes harmoniously and at other times contentiously.

Here, we dive deep into the impacts, both positive and negative, of copyright on human rights.

1. Positive Impacts:

a) Incentivising Creation and Originality: By offering exclusive rights to authors and creators, copyright serves as an economic incentive for the creation of new works, thus fostering a rich and diverse cultural landscape.

This aligns with the human right to freely participate in cultural life and enjoy the arts.

b) Moral Rights: In many jurisdictions, copyright law encompasses moral rights, which protect the personal and reputational, rather than purely economic, interests of authors.

This means authors have the right to object to derogatory treatments of their works, aligning with the principle of human dignity.

2. Areas of Tension:

a) Access to Knowledge and Information: Overly restrictive copyright regimes can impede access to knowledge, limiting the public’s right to education and access to information.

For instance, excessive prices for academic texts due to  limitations can hamper the educational prospects of students in low-income countries.

b) Freedom of Expression: Copyright can sometimes be wielded as a tool to stifle criticism, parodies, or transformative works, thereby impinging upon the right to freedom of expression.

Overzealous enforcement mechanisms, such as automated take-down notices, can sometimes result in legitimate content being unjustly removed from platforms.

c) Cultural Participation: The extended duration of some protections can limit the public’s access to cultural works, constraining the human right to participate in one’s cultural community.

3. Modern Challenges and Considerations:

a) Digital Age Dynamics: With the advent of digital technologies and the internet, the dissemination of information has become easier and more widespread.

While this has benefits in terms of access to information, it also presents challenges in terms of  infringement.

Digital Rights Management (DRM) tools and strict enforcement measures can sometimes infringe on users’ rights to access information, education, and freedom of expression.

b) Balancing Act: Open access movements and Creative Commons licenses exemplify modern endeavors to recalibrate the balance, ensuring that copyright doesn’t overly impede human rights.

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These mechanisms aim to provide more lenient access to copyrighted works, especially for educational and non-commercial purposes.

Is Violating Copyright a Human Right Violation?

The interplay between copyright and human rights is a topic of significant legal and philosophical depth.

When considering whether the violation of copyright constitutes a human rights violation, multiple facets of the relationship between these two realms must be examined.

1. Copyright as a Human Right

As mentioned in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) Article 27, there’s an inherent recognition of the author’s right to the protection of their intellectual creations.

Given this acknowledgment, one could argue that infringing upon trademark potentially infringes upon the human right of the creator to protect their moral and material interests.

2. Balancing Individual Rights with Societal Interests

However, the very essence of copyright, and by extension, human rights, is rooted in a balance between individual rights and the broader societal interest.

Copyright is not an absolute right but one that is meant to promote both the creation of new works and the dissemination of these works for the public’s benefit.

From this perspective, not every infringement would necessarily equate to a human rights violation, especially if it serves a broader public interest.

3. Context Matters

The nature and intent behind the infringement can play a pivotal role in this determination. For instance:

Commercial Exploitation: If someone violates copyright for significant commercial gain, depriving the original creator of their rightful economic benefits, it could be seen as a more egregious offense, closer to infringing upon the creator’s rights.

Personal or Educational Use: Conversely, minor infringements for personal or educational purposes might not be viewed with the same level of severity from a human rights perspective, especially if they align with other human rights, like the right to education.

4. The Danger of Equating All Infringements with Human Rights Violations

It’s essential to approach this topic with caution.

If every instance of infringement were deemed a human rights violation, it could potentially diminish the gravity associated with human rights violations.

Such an approach might also overlook the nuances and complexities inherent in both copyright and human rights laws.

Conclusion

The dance between copyright and human rights is intricate and multifaceted, reflecting the evolving nuances of our socio-legal landscapes.

While copyright seeks to protect and incentivise individual creativity, human rights uphold the inherent dignity, freedom, and equality of all.

The challenge lies in harmoniously reconciling the rights of creators with the broader societal goals of information access, education, and cultural exchange.

As we navigate this interplay, it becomes evident that neither realm can exist in a vacuum; each informs and is informed by the other.

As the digital era continues to redefine the contours of creation, dissemination, and consumption, our collective responsibility is to ensure that the delicate balance between copyright and human rights remains both just and beneficial for all.

In the end, a world where individual creativity thrives alongside communal enrichment is not just an ideal, but a possibility within our grasp.


Frequently Asked Questions

How does copyright relate to human rights?

Copyright is inherently linked to human rights through instruments like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) Article 27, which recognises both the right of individuals to benefit from the protection of their creative works and the public’s right to freely participate in cultural life and benefit from scientific advancements.

While copyright emphasises protecting creators’ rights, it also needs to balance societal interests, such as access to information and cultural participation.

Can overly restrictive copyright laws violate human rights?

Yes, if laws are excessively restrictive, they can impede other fundamental human rights, like the right to access information, education, or freedom of expression.

It’s essential for laws to strike a balance between protecting creators and ensuring broader societal access to knowledge and culture.
 

Is every copyright infringement a human rights violation?

Not necessarily. While there’s a recognition of creators’ rights to their intellectual creations in human rights instruments, not all infringements equate to human rights violations.

The context, intent, and impact of the infringement play a pivotal role in this determination.

For example, a minor infraction for personal use may not be seen in the same light as large-scale commercial exploitation.

How does the digital age affect the relationship between copyright and human rights?

The digital era has amplified the challenges and intersections between copyright and human rights.

With the easy dissemination and replication of digital content, infringements have become more prevalent.

Measures like Digital Rights Management (DRM) tools, designed to prevent unauthorised copying, can sometimes conflict with rights like freedom of expression or access to information when they restrict legitimate uses of copyrighted content.
 

Are there mechanisms to balance copyright protection with human rights?
 

Yes, various mechanisms aim to recalibrate this balance. For instance, “fair use” or “fair dealing” provisions in copyright laws allow for exceptions and limitations to copyright protection in specific scenarios, such as education or commentary.

Additionally, initiatives like open access movements and Creative Commons licenses provide alternative licensing options, allowing more lenient access to copyrighted works, especially for non-commercial or educational purposes.

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