Access to culture and copyright in Uruguay: #noal218, a civil society victory

by Digital Rights LAC on September 19, 2013

Large copyright graffiti sign on cream colored wall

In the course of a few weeks, the copyright law was no longer an unknown subject in Uruguay and moved to shake the cultural community, occupying a place in the mainstream media.

By Jorge Gemetto *

In early July, the Uruguayan government had included an article in the Accountability Bill (one omnibus bill that mostly deals with administrative issues), which extended the term of copyright from 50 to 70 years after the author’s death. Article 218 (that was its number in the bill) was included at the request of the Uruguayan Chamber of the Record Industry (CUD, in Spanish) in coordination with Uruguay’s General Association of Authors (AGADU, in Spanish), entities that historically led the copyright law reform, succeeding in imposing growing restrictions. This time, for the first time, they received a political setback, due to strong opposition from many sectors.

#noal218 [‘not to 218’] was the response’s name of various civil society organizations, students, musicians, writers, illustrators, actors, editors, feminist groups, free software groups and international human rights organizations, which joined forces in the initiative to remove the article in question and to avoid, as pointed out on its blog, the “privatization of culture in Uruguay.”

The main virtues of the #noal218 movement were the fast reflexes in launching the campaign, the articulation of various recognized social activism sectors, the determination to seek audience with political representatives and formulate before them the claim, the ability of network organization, and the proper use of digital media.

When evaluating the movement’s success, none of these factors was less important than the other. In several media, it was stressed that #noal218 was a social media phenomenon. And indeed, in part it was. Undoubtedly, effortless use of online communication by young activists, digital media savvy, was a unique characteristic of the movement. It was impressive the communication pace of the movement, with discussions and debates that opened on social networks all the time, as opposed to the silence of the measure promoters, which only declared in front of the so-called traditional media and through a brief text published, in the form of a press release, in the AGADU website.

Similarly, the ability of network organization with a less hierarchical structure based on bonds of trust and teamwork resulted in quick decisions that were key in achieving objectives. Obviously, there is a generational factor that determines this big difference in the communication and organization forms, and in this case favored the activists for the right to culture.

However, it would be a mistake to believe that the #noal218‘s victory was achieved only in the social media. To begin with, there was a strategy that included the traditional media. These, which are used to always listen one voice, were surprised by the presence of a new social actor predisposed to break the hegemonic voice and patiently explain a concept like public domain, unfamiliar to the general opinion. The press coverage did not stand out for their accuracy or fairness. But at least, this made ​​it clear that there was a conflict where the interests at stake were not only the ones of the chambers of commerce or rights management entities, but also the interests of independent artists, students, teachers and culture users in general.

Moreover, there was a determination for rapprochement with political representatives that largely explains the campaign’s success. The government did not have an unequivocal position in favor of the extension of copyright terms, but it had responded to a specific demand from a sector, with no information that there were other sectors opposed to the measure. The interesting thing is that when activists requested meetings with government officials and made public their claim, those policy makers who had a position in favor of social sharing of knowledge were surprised. Several officials acknowledged feeling happy to find a new social partner, that would serve as a support to begin routes that before could not undertake due to lack of social support. Others, who did not have a definite position on the copyright issue, said they were grateful to receive a new view on the subject, other than the AGADU’s and CUD’s historical demands.

It should be noted that the political conditions in Uruguay for a movement like #noal218 are significantly more favorable than in other Latin American countries. Uruguay is not part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Therefore, the country does not currently suffer international pressures to tighten its copyright law. In this context, reversing the extension of the terms of protection does not imply any cost at international policy level. It is conceivable that the situation would be very different if Uruguay decides to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership or if the free trade agreement with the European Union prospers. For the free culture movement, these are potential threats to consider when thinking about the future.

As it was already mentioned, the extension of the term of copyright was defeated. However, the #noal218 movement did not take the victory as an end in itself, but as the beginning for a positive agenda on access to culture and copyright. The Uruguayan copyright law is extremely restrictive: it penalizes everyday socially accepted practices and it is in conflict with the right to education and access to culture. For that reason, from the new platform promotes a copyright law reform that recognizes the cultural practices associated with the use of new technologies, that do actually protect the authors, and that promotes a free culture. The Uruguayan government has committed to establish, within the next few months, the framework conducive to an institutional debate, with the largest number of voices represented. It is expected that the recommendations made in that forum pave the legislative route aimed at ensuring the right to culture.

*Jorge Gemetto is co-director of “Ártica”, a Cultural Center on line (Uruguay).  Twitter: @Jorgemet