Wikimedia South Africa/Letter to the president

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Open Letter to President Ramaphosa

An open letter from Wikimedia South Africa to the President of South Africa. Wikimedia South Africa calls on the President to sign the Copyright Amendment Bill. We outline why we feel so strongly about this issue in the letter and how it helps free knowledge contributors in South Africa broadly and Wikipedia editors specifically. It is for these reasons that we feel signing the bill is strongly in the public interest.

His Excellency Cyril Ramaphosa,
President, Republic of South Africa,
Union Buildings
Private Bag X1000,
South Africa

Date: 29 January 2020
Subject: Copyright Amendment Bill

Your Excellency,

I write today on behalf of Wikimedia South Africa, the volunteer driven non-profit chapter for South African Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia, editors and free knowledge contributors. As volunteers in the Wikimedia movement, we understand the important role that access to knowledge plays in South Africans’ lives. This is why we have spent the last 6 years advocating for amendments to the South African copyright act which will allow South Africans to fully participate in free knowledge. These amendments now sit on your desk as a part of the Copyright Amendment Bill, and I ask today that you sign this bill into law.

One of the most important inclusions for free knowledge in this bill is the codifying of fair use in South Africa. Fair use, and its less expansive counterpart, fair dealing, have been adopted by countries around the world to empower their creators, educators, journalists, and innovators. Fair use, which allows for the use of a copyrighted work for certain specific social beneficial purposes like criticism, reporting, and education. One of the largest test markets for fair use is the United States, where citizens have been benefiting from these laws for years. Some examples of fair use in the United States include: critics using stills or clips from content they are criticizing; investigative reporters telling their stories using primary sources; and artists building their work on foundations laid by prior generations.

We understand that there have been criticisms around the inclusion of fair use in the Copyright Amendment Bill, with claims that the new bill means that South Africa cannot adequately protect foreign copyright interests. We respectfully disagree. A lack of fair use in our laws only serves to further a status quo where the rest of the world can freely use and benefit from the work of South African creators, but South Africans cannot do the same. Fair use, at its heart, protects publicly beneficial uses of copyrighted works. The introduction of fair use in this bill will simply allow South Africans to be better protected when they choose to use both domestic and foreign copyrighted works in their art, criticism, reporting, and research the way others have been doing across the globe for years. On Wikipedia, fair use plays an important role in contextualizing facts, and illuminating knowledge. At Wikimedia South Africa, we want South Africans to be able to share their knowledge with the world, and fair use is an important part of that.

We are also thrilled that the bill has included provisions which codify freedom of panorama in South Africa. Freedom of panorama is a copyright principle which allows for the photographing of artistic and architectural works in public spaces. Currently in South Africa, taking or sharing photographs of public spaces which contain statues or memorials are technically in violation of the author of that work’s copyright and could result in a lawsuit. This means that many markers of South Africa’s vibrant and important history legally cannot be shared by its own citizens online. Worse, because copyright lasts 50 years after the death of the author, no post-apartheid statues or monuments may be photographed and shared online legally in South Africa, leaving a literal blind spot in our nation’s visual history online. As Wikipedians, we understand the importance of documenting our history and sharing South Africa’s rich culture with the world, which is why we believe freedom of panorama is such an important inclusion in South Africa’s amended copyright law.

At Wikimedia South Africa, we are proud to share our knowledge of South Africa and its people with the world. The Copyright Amendment Bill will be a big step toward enabling Wikimedia South Africa and all South Africans to fully access, share, and participate in knowledge online. This is why we respectfully ask that you sign this bill into law.


Douglas Ian Scott

Wikimedia South Africa
8 Spin Street, Cape Town, Western Cape, 8000, South Africa