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Printed textbooks remain crucial for education, particularly in developing countries. However, in many of these countries, textbooks are unavailable, too expensive, or not accessible in learners’ native tongues. Digital content, for many reasons, does not prove a wondrous solution. Cheaply (translating and) reproducing textbooks would be a strategy. However, reprography is highly regulated under copyright law. Copyright also adds to the cost of textbooks. The availability, accessibility, and acceptability of learning materials constitute essential elements of the right to education under international human rights law.

Intellectual property (IP) law has so far refrained from endorsing the concept of extraterritorial state obligations (ETOs) under international human rights law (IHRL), that is, of states, in appropriate circumstances, bearing human rights obligations toward those living beyond their own territory. This reluctance is regrettable if it is borne in mind that most IP, including copyright law originates at the international level, where each state plays a role in designing rules that may affect the lives of those in other countries. ETOs could assume a key function in “civilizing”—as it were, “constitutionalizing”—IP law.

This Article will demonstrate the significance of ETOs for IP law by focusing on the issue of how the right to education under IHRL prescribes requirements that international copyright law must comply with to facilitate access to textbooks in schools and universities. Drawing on the expert Maastricht Principles on Extraterritorial Obligations of States in the Area of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of 2011, and applying the well-known tripartite typology of state obligations to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights, the ETOs concept will be introduced and twenty typical ETOs under the right to education in the international copyright context that safeguard access to printed textbooks will be identified. A final central aim of the Article will be to explain how exactly, within international law as a unified system, ETOs can lead to a “constitutionalization” of IP law. Although the discussion relates to issues of accessibility in developing countries more generally, the dire situation of access to textbooks in education in Africa strongly motivated this research.