Intellectual property concerns during a health emergency

The pandemic has focussed librarians' attention on copyright. WIPO has some new initiatives that affect the situation.

Librarians working from home have a lot on their minds. I touched on this in my Dollar Sign column in the May/June 2020 issue of Online Searcher. By now, remote working logistics have probably been ironed out and video conferencing has become a common communications medium. Librarians remain challenged to provide remote services to patrons, students, faculty, and other stakeholders. The inability to access physical materials continues to vex librarians, particularly when their users are nowhere near the building and may not be in the near future, depending on scheduling. Librarians wonder what they are legally allowed to digitise and share with their users.

While some public libraries around the globe are gradually putting reopening plans into action, the situation for academic libraries is more uncertain. Some universities have announced plans for upcoming on-campus courses; others are sticking with an online curriculum; and some have not yet formulated a plan. Regardless, library services have been changed and, in some instances, curtailed. One workaround might involve digitising copyrighted material or altering existing license agreements.

Focus on Copyright

The pandemic situation has focussed the attention of information professionals on copyright and, to a lesser extent, patents. This may not be as universally interesting as mask wearing or vaccine availability, but it affects not only librarians but also researchers and publishers. WIPO, the World Intellectual Property Organisation, is at the centre of promulgating the rules and regulations to which librarians adhere. It has responded to calls from the library, education, archives, museums, and researcher communities to respond to issues raised by them. The problem, stated in the letter, is:

Now, schools, universities, libraries, archives, museums and research institutes across the world, forced to close their buildings, are transferring materials online and providing remote access, but only where copyright laws permit. However, these and other critical activities to overcome the crisis are not being performed everywhere - including where subscriptions have been paid in advance - because they are not lawful everywhere.”

WIPO’s Policy Tracker And PATENTSCOPE

WIPO has come up with two new initiatives and a policy statement regarding intellectual property and the COVID-19 pandemic. One initiative is a policy tracker that compiles extensions of deadlines and other requirements regarding filing for intellectual property protection into a concise table, updated as needed. It includes information, by country or region, on the relevant office, its status and operational hours, teleworking and working remotely with customers status, correspondence mechanisms, whether it is processing existing and/or new applications, time limits, and fee relief. More detailed information is available once you click on the “view more” link at the end of each row. You can also sort by country.

Under the “Legislative and reg. measures” tab is information on developments by country and region on the legislative and regulatory fronts. The policy measures are implements “to manage and to mitigate in case of emergencies.” Click the “Voluntary Actions” tab to see what organisations, corporations and other rights holders in the private section are doing in terms of voluntary measures in the light of the health crisis.

WIPO also introduced the ability to search for technological information included in the 83 million published patents and related documents included in PATENTSCOPE that relate to the detection, prevention or treatment of COVID-19. Adding this functionality to PATENTSCOPE enables innovation in the area of development new technologies to fight the Novel Corona Virus. It also provides dozens of search queries that are curated by patent information experts, who have identified relevant technological areas to explore regarding the virus. Searching is supported in 10 languages and PATENTSCOPE supports an automatic translation system that uses AI technologies to improve accuracy.


A new business service from WIPO, called WIPO PROOF, has more to do with protecting intellectual property rights than it does with combatting the pandemic. WIPO PROOF generates tamper-proof evidence that can prove an intellectual asset’s existence. It creates a token for a digital file, that is date- and time-stamped. This digital fingerprint can be used as evidence in a legal dispute that the file has not been altered since then. This helps prevent misuse and misappropriation, whether or not the digital asset is ever formally accorded intellectual property rights, since it shows that steps were taken to safeguard it.

WIPO suggests such divergent uses for WIPO PROOF as protecting trade secrets in commercial operations, creative works for the arts and humanities, and scientific research data, particularly data used as training sets for AI models.

As librarians struggle to find a balance between observing intellectual property rights and providing excellent library service, the actions of WIPO to help them out is welcome.