I recently had the chance to attend the ACA2K Dissemination Seminar held this month at the University of Witswatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa. Hosted by the Link Centre, the half-day event was funded through the ACA2K’s supporters, IDRC and Shuttleworth Foundation and was an opportunity to share their recent research findings within the realm of copyright law and its influence on access to educational materials in Africa.
The event hosted about 18 representatives ranging from local librarians, NGOs, to government– all wishing to learn how copyright legislation was affecting their perception of the education system particularly in ensuring reach of textbooks, journals, and other learning resources were reaching students and other users in South Africa. While a large array of research findings were addressed, participants were specifically focused on finding the way forward to ensure that a balanced, contextualized law for copyright holders and users of learning materials is accurately delivered and thus to make certain the progressive socio-economic development in their country like South Africa.
Listening to the presentations by ACA2K’s South Africa and Mozambique team, and the round of comments/questions from the participants, I was amazed by the genuine desire many had to better understand copyright law, and to figure out how to participate in change in their respective disciplines and in a sustainable way. There was a real interest in how to improve access of learning materials particularly for the sensory disabled (such as supporting the upcoming Treaty for the Visually Impaired to be presented at WIPO’s standing committee next week), which in its current copyright state, has no legislation facilitating the access to materials for the blind or disabled. Yet enshrined in the Constitution, the law states that the visually impaired cannot be discriminated and there must be ways found to deliver them their rights to education. Secondly, the team discussed how updated copyright policy should start to match much of the innovation in distance education and the content which they provide to students. While distance learning (with use of electronic materials) is flourishing in many parts of Africa, many institutions can be unaware whether such online portals falls under “fair use” for students or if they are liable to pay royalty fees for sharing materials to their students. The law is vague and in South Africa, the Copyright Act has not changed since 1978 and cannot possibly cover such new innovation under this outdated Act (but I understand is currently under discussion for change). For me, I saw strong advocacy could also go towards indigenous knowledge and how learners need to be given provision to access such materials which affect learning about their cultural heritage. It was also incredible to learn how the eight African study countries had all established copyright law and they had chosen to adopt policies which exceeds that of the minimum requirement by international standards.
The ACA2K has been an effective voice in international fora like WIPO, and they push for the advocacy support needed to ensure that Africa is part of those discussions at the higher levels of international law standards. ACA2K has really served to bridge African issues right down to the under-resourced user of learning materials to governmental change in copyright law. This group is able to establish enough strong rigourous research to attract the ear of international groups and build for further research in intellectual property in Africa. Such an approach does not come easy, as the team endured team member changes to physical distance to language barriers, the group has made major strives in the last two years. Despite inadequate or poorly maintained infrastructure, the team bypasses these barriers and has produced high quality peer-reviewed works. By partnering with local African researchers, such as those from the University of Cape Town or Universidad Eduardo Mondlane (Mozambique), we have found that those researchers will have profound effects on their own government law and being the natural advocates for change and improvement in their nation and their fellow citizens.
As a next step, ACA2K hopes to continue their advocacy work and find ways to reach change in the areas identified in their research. I think that I saw several exciting potential partnerships emerge between ACA2K and lobby groups for the blind, distance education and possibly indigenous knowledge initiatives. I look forward to seeing the group thrive to maintain their African network of like-minded lawyers and Intellectual Property experts and continue to assist other African nations map out their copyright law history and ensure that they deliver impactful research as has been conducted by the ACA2K team.
UPDATE (December 17, 2009):
1) Recent statement by IQsensato (and ACA2K) at the 19th Session of World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO)’s Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights (WIPO - SCCR 19, 14-18 December 2009) found here.
2) ACA2K December 2009 Policy Brief: Research Findings from Africa Relevant to WIPO SCCR 19 which addresses the eight countries research findings on copyright limitations and exceptions in a)Distance learning; b) Visually-impaired persons; and c) Libraries and archives.