Copyright and Sustainable Development – Part 1: How a balanced copyright framework supports delivery of the 2030 Agenda

The United Nations 2030 Agenda and its 17 the Sustainable Development Goals set out a comprehensive policy roadmap towards a new, more sustainable model of development. It is designed to steer not only the work of the United Nations and its agencies, but also those of governments, and of all other stakeholders.

In contrast to the Millennium Development Goals that preceded it, the 2030 Agenda does not just focus on a sub-set of policy areas – the tasks of any one single ministry or agency – but on all of them.

Moreover, it highlights how essential it is to consider interlinkages – how actions taken in any one area may affect the achievement of policy goals elsewhere, for better or for worse.

This implies a responsibility. When taking decisions, broader consequences need to be taken into account.

The Agenda is also global, rather than concentrated only on the developing world, recognising the fact that the fates of countries are just as interlinked as different policy areas. This is not only clear in areas such as climate change or pandemic health, but also in wider questions of trade or tax policies.

As such, decisions about copyright, such as those discussed at the World Intellectual Property Organisation, should be based on consideration of the potential impacts on policy outcomes across the board, not just in any one single area.

Moreover, they should also reflect the interconnected nature of the world, avoiding the costs of misalignment and realising the potential of stronger coordination.

This blog – the first part of two – therefore looks at the different goals on which copyright policy decisions may have an impact, and in particular where balance between rights and exceptions (or even setting elements of copyright aside through open licensing) is important. The second part then considers how some of the cross-cutting themes present in the 2030 Agenda as a whole could apply in the way that we think about copyright in general.

Innovation (SDG9): perhaps the most obvious area where copyright – and intellectual property – is seen as having an effect is around the promotion of innovation. Clearly, innovation has a vital role. At its best, it offers new ways of doing things, requiring fewer resources. It is also essential to come up with solutions to new challenges (not least COVID).

The argument for intellectual property rights is that they enable investment in innovation by creating a means of ensuring a return. In other words, if someone cannot make money from inventing or creating things, they may not be able to do it in the first place.

However, as the global shift towards open science underlines, downstream innovation – in terms of new products or ways of doing things – can in fact benefit from greater openness upstream. When the sharing of research findings and data is restricted or slowed, so too is the pace of new discovery, be it for products, or for responding to grand challenges such as climate change or pandemics.

Education and Skills (SDG4, 8): another area where there is already focus on the role of copyright is in access to education. There are strong efforts to argue that easier possibilities to licence content, as well as the development of local copyright industries, will overcome inequities faced.

At the same time, teachers, both in the formal and informal/non-formal education systems often rely not on specifically created educational outputs, but rather materials from everyday life that are freely available online in order to help students learn. The rise of the open educational resources movement is creating new possibilities for teachers themselves to create and share tools among peers.

Such uses do not imply any loss of sales, while educators are better able to focus on instruction when they benefit from rules that do not add complexity or cost. Crucially, they do contribute to improved educational outcomes, in turn supporting wider economic development and so the market for copyrighted products.

Sustainable Consumption (SDG12): an area less frequently talked about, but where copyright law could contribute, is around reducing waste. In particular, there has been the  rise of calls for a ‘right to repair’, focussing on the value of making it easier to fix products, without needing to risk infringing copyright, for example through correcting software, or even accessing repair manuals. In short, making it easier to repair goods is likely to give them a longer life, reducing the demand for new production.

Open Government (SDG16): the SDGs emphasise the importance of openness and transparency in government as a means of enabling citizen participation and improving outcomes. A central pillar of this is the open publishing of public sector information, from legal texts to budgets and beyond.

This is also an area for copyright, given that unless exempted, government texts too are covered. When such texts or databases are be kept behind paywalls, citizens face barriers – insurmountable for some – to exercise their right to democratic participation.

Research Cooperation (SDG17): in addition to the emphasis on innovation in SDG9, SDG17 focuses on partnerships for the goals, and in particular the possibility for research and knowledge cooperation across borders.

While specific agreements to transfer IP, or to give access to copyrighted materials to institutions in developing countries may help, they are necessarily narrow, and risk leaving many left out, also then limiting scope for cooperation. Broader possibilities to share materials in the context of cross-border research, without the uncertainty that unaligned copyright laws create, would expand the scope for new collaborations.

Digital Inclusion (SDG5, 9, 17): the 2030 Agenda recognises the importance of technology as an enabler of development, not just in dedicated targets concerning connectivity, but also when looking at data around usage. Clearly, an important determinant of how useful being online is to someone is whether they are able to access digital content and services.

Among the varieties of content available, online learning is a clear example, as is the possibility to access the collections of libraries and museums. During the pandemic, indeed, digital access has been the only means of doing this for many who cannot afford to buy content directly. Copyright laws can have a determining impact on the possibilities that providers and users have to benefit from these possibilities.

Safeguarding Cultural Heritage (SDG11): finally, the SDGs highlight the importance of safeguarding cultural heritage. This is of course a core function of libraries, archives and museums, which increasingly use digital technologies in order to preserve materials for the future.

However, digital preservation involves copying, and so copyright itself. Unless there are possibilities in law to make copies, the preservation decisions of these institutions are likely to be guided more by what implies least risk or least cost, rather than what is most important.


These represent just some areas where the way in which governments strike a balance in copyright, at the national and international levels, can make a difference to development outcomes. Indeed, the SDGs arguably provide a structure, a checklist even, for thinking through the merits of the decisions that are taken.

In part 2, we turn away from individual SDGs, and to a couple of the principles that underpin the entire 2030 Agenda, notably sustainability and the right to development.