How should we frame and serve cultural rights in the digital age ?

Sharing cover

This post gives the core of what I said in the panel on « Legalizing file-sharing: an idea whose time has come – or gone? » in the Information Influx conference organized to celebrate the 25 years of IViR, the Institute of Information Law in Amsterdam on 4 July 2014. The panel brought together 4 people who worked on schemes to permit the legalization of file sharing and remuneration for creators of works that are shared: Neil Netanel, Alexander Peukert, Sévérine Dusollier and myself. Many others were sitting in the room and participated in the discussion.


The question brought to this panel is « Legalizing file-sharing: an idea whose time has come – or gone? ». To answer this question, we need to go to another much more important one : « How should we frame cultural rights in the digital age ? » We have guidance on this from great texts : article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in more precise terms, article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, adopted by all EU countries and signed but not ratified by the US :

Article 15
1. The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone:
(a) To take part in cultural life;
(b) To enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications;
(c) To benefit from the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.
2. The steps to be taken by the States Parties to the present Covenant to achieve the full realization of this right shall include those necessary for the conservation, the development and the diffusion of science and culture.
3. The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to respect the freedom indispensable for scientific research and creative activity.
4. The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the benefits to be derived from the encouragement and development of international contacts and co-operation in the scientific and cultural fields.

These are texts that are contemporary of the development of digital technology (computers for the first, the predecessors of the internet for the second) but it is fair to say that very few anticipated how digital technology would reshape us and our social interactions at the time. That’s precisely why they provide good guidance for us today. These texts pre-date the great brainwashing that occurred in the last 20 years of the 20th century, when the new capabilities of human beings were redefined as a problem. It took me 10 years from 2004 to travel back to what I consider now to be a provisionally sound approach to the definition of cultural rights in the digital age, and it is the end of this messy trajectory that I want to share with you now.
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