What's the big idea? UDMLaw Review Symposium looks at the future of IP law

By Steve Thorpe

Legal News

It seems that whatever international issue is raised today, China tends to step to the forefront.

"China is going to play a more assertive role in the international IP (intellectual property) regime," said Prof. Peter K. Yu. "If you are interested in international IP development, you want to ask questions about China."

The Law Review Symposium on the Future of Intellectual Property Law was hosted by the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law on March 9 at the Detroit Athletic Club. Four panels discussed the topics of The Future of Patent Law, The Future of Trademark Law, The Future of Copyright, and The Future of International Intellectual Property Law.

Panelists at the all-day event included U.S. District Judge Avern L. Cohn, Timothy Gorbatoff, Chief IP Counsel for General Motors, U-M Prof. Jessica Litman and Marybeth Peters, Former United States Register of Copyrights.

During the Future of International Copyright Law segment panelists talked about sweeping changes occurring in the realm of global intellectual property.

Disagreements on international intellectual property law in the past have often seen developed nations arrayed on one side of the argument and developing nations on the other. China is a particularly interesting case because it's in the process of crossing that fence. Currently a haven for "borrowed" IP and trademarks, it now is becoming interested in protecting those things.

"The traditional discussion about China is about piracy," Yu said. "But there are also some interesting developments in China on the trademark front."

Yu, founding director of the Intellectual Property Law Center at Drake University Law School, then showed a series of outrageous -- and sometimes amusing -- examples of ripoffs of trademarks in China.

"Here's a 'Blockberry,' not a Blackberry, and it's endorsed by President Obama. 'KFG Chicken' is popular as is 'O'McDonald's' with its famous three golden arches. 'Pizza Huh,' 'Buckstar Coffee' and Apple ... without the bite. Oddly, sometimes you actually get more features than the regular product, but much of the time it's just a low-quality replica."

But Yu said the Chinese appear to be serious about change.

"What's really interesting is that China is now actively building an intellectual property system, focusing on its own technological development," Yu said.

Although the focus in such discussions is often on protecting the rights of intellectual property holders like inventors, authors and composers, there is now a trend toward a more flexible approach.

"This idea that the sky will fall if rights holders can't have absolute control over the dissemination of copyrighted works really should be considered with skepticism," said panelist Wissam Aoun, an instructor at the University of Windsor Faculty of Law and an expert on patents, trademarks, scientific research and experimental development. "Social justice advocates have been speaking out -- including some of the people in this room -- about counter-hegemonic movements around the world. Another significant development in the evolution of international copyright law lies in its recent linkage with fundamental human rights instruments, such as Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights."

Michele Woods, Senior Counsel for Policy and International Affairs at United States Copyright Office, believes that the U.S. agency strikes the right balance between creators and users.

"Balance ... what does that mean? From the perspective of the U.S. Copyright Office, we reject the idea that balance is copyright vs. free copying of everything," she said. "That is not our idea of balance in the copyright system. We believe we have a strong and balanced copyright system of strong protections but also strong exceptions and limitations."

Woods cited frequent exceptions to copyright as demonstrating the flexibility already present in the current approach.

"For example, in the U.S. when we talk about access to copyrighted works for the blind and visually impaired, we have a copyright exception -- a very strong one -- to allow that access," she said.

Her office assists the Register of Copyrights in advising Congress and executive branch agencies on international copyright issues.

The panelists all agreed that the current "spaghetti bowl" of international trade agreements, treaties and laws will have to be simplified to accommodate the explosion of global trade. As always, the devil will be in the details as competing interests iron out their differences and settle on streamlined rules.

Published: Fri, Mar 16, 2012

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