An international treaty designed to protect copyright holders in the 'digital age' is ready to become law, now that 30 countries, including Japan and the US, have ratified it.

Wipo’s (the World Intellectual Property Organization's) Copyright Treaty, or WCT, is designed to protect the rights of composers, artists, writers and others whose work is distributed over the internet or other digital media. The West African nation of Gabon acceded to the pact last week, allowing it to take effect on 6 March 2002, Wipo said.

"It's a big day, not just for copyright, but for our culture and information industries," said Jørgen Blomqvist, director of Wipo's copyright law division. "We want culture, we want music, we also want to get access to films over the internet. In order to get that done, the internet has to move from the Wild West into a reasonably civilised area. These treaties are the basis for that."

Among major industrialised nations, only the US and Japan have ratified WCT thus far. The European Union is expected to do so, but the parliaments of all 15 EU member states must first separately pass an EU directive with similar provisions. This process is expected to be completed by late December 2002, Blomqvist said.

WCT sets international norms for the protection of literary and artistic works, a broad category that includes books, computer programs, music, art and movies. It updates the major copyright treaty currently in effect, the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, which was originally adopted in 1886 and most recently revised in 1971.

The new pact clarifies "that the right of reproduction as we know it in the analogue world also applies" to the internet and digital media, Blomqvist said. "So when you copy a work from a hard disk to a server, it is reproduction."

Older copyright agreements were designed for traditional media like broadcasting, where "you have a push medium, where someone is deciding which works users shall have at a given time", he said.

"Now the situation is different with the internet, because the individual user is pulling the work to him- or herself. You could argue it is a private, closed communication not involving the public and therefore not copyright protected."

"It's quite clear that there are difficulties in this area, comparable to other areas like piracy of CDs and CD-ROMs," Blomqvist said. "On the internet it's most likely that we will go more and more into legal protection complemented by and supported by technological protections."