Intellectual property. Picture: ISTOCK
Intellectual property. Picture: ISTOCK

Global producers and distributors of films and television programmes such as Walt Disney Studios, Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures, Universal City Studios and Warner Bros have called on President Cyril Ramaphosa not to sign the contentious Copyright Amendment Bill in its current form.  

They  said the bill, if signed into law, would fall foul of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) copyright treaty, which emphasises the significance of copyright protection as an incentive for literary and artistic creation. The treaty aims to extend coverage of copyright and the protection of intellectual property to the internet and digital environment. 

In a letter to Ramaphosa dated August 15, the companies, writing through representative umbrella organisations such as the Motion Picture Association and the Independent Music Publishers International Forum, urged the president to return the bill to parliament for reconsideration.

They wanted it sent back “for a proper, sector-specific impact assessment and meaningful consultation with affected stakeholders”.

They said that as a priority, SA’s copyright framework must be fit for purpose.

“The SA government has committed itself to modernising SA copyright law to bring it into line with the WIPO internet and Beijing treaties, which SA intends to ratify.

“Our communities fully support these policy aims. Regrettably, the Copyright Amendment Bill and the Performers’ Protection Amendment Bill, as currently drafted, would not only fail to achieve these stated aims but they would instead undermine SA’s creative communities,” the organisations said.

The proposals contained in the bills would, if adopted, limit the creative sectors’ ability to protect their rights and invest in SA, substantially weakening SA’s internal and export markets for creative content. This, the organisations said, would harm SA’s creators, its strong creative culture and, ultimately, its citizens.

Earlier in 2019, the International Intellectual Property Association (IIPA), which represents US companies that produce copyright-protected material, including computer software, films, TV programmes, music and books, said as a retaliatory measure it will lobby the US government to withdraw SA’s preferential trade status should the bill be signed into law.

This could see about R12bn of SA’s exports losing preferential access to US markets.

The Copyright Amendment Bill erodes local intellectual property rights, allowing international companies to republish the creative work of local authors and artists without needing to compensate them with fair royalties or usage fees to enable them to earn a living.

Parliament recently approved the bill, which is now awaiting Ramaphosa’s signature before becoming law. The bill proposes changing the country’s copyright regime, which includes the introduction of the “fair use” principle, which, in effect, allows for the free use of copyrighted content.

The “fair use” framework included in the rules, which gives individuals and companies numerous avenues to circumvent copyright protections and republish content, follows the example set by the US.

But unlike SA’s courts, those in the US can award hefty statutory punitive damages in copyright-infringement cases, opponents of the bill say. In SA, an offender would simply have to stop reusing the content and would have to pay only standard royalties.

Tech companies, including Facebook and Google, have backed similar laws in other jurisdictions, arguing that protecting copyright on artistic, news and academic work will limit online innovation and freedoms.