November 05, 2010 | Jim Killock

Copyright reform is on the EU Commission’s agenda

Commissioner Neelie Kroes today announced that the EU Commission wants to reform EU copyright.

She – like David Cameron yesterday – stated clearly that current copyright laws are creating a barrier to creativity and trade:

Today our fragmented copyright system is ill-adapted to the real essence of art, which has no frontiers. Instead, that system has ended up giving a more prominent role to intermediaries than to artists. It irritates the public who often cannot access what artists want to offer and leaves a vacuum which is served by illegal content, depriving the artists of their well deserved remuneration. And copyright enforcement is often entangled in sensitive questions about privacy, data protection or even net neutrality.

It may suit some vested interests to avoid a debate, or to frame the debate on copyright in moralistic terms that merely demonise millions of citizens. But that is not a sustainable approach. We need this debate because we need action to promote a legal digital Single Market in Europe.

These are fine words – and could easily have been said by the Open Rights Group at any time during the Digital Economy Act debates.

Kroes is calling for two very important reforms. The first is pan-EU copyright  licenses. This would allow simpler trade in legitimate copyright works. iTunes, for example, has never provided services to many EU states, because getting licenses is too complicated.

The second reform is about allowing the use of the vast swathes of music, books, films and photos where the copyright owners have long since disappeared, generally because they have died, and it is unclear where their relatives might be. These are called “orphan works”. While the best solution would be shorter copyright terms, there are other possible solutions.

Here, Kroes’ solution is likely to be more limited and less ambitious. ORG participated in the evidence gathering and debates in the EU, following the Google Books case in the USA. Orphan works create complicated political debates, where particularly photographers have been worried that their works may be incorrectly classed as ‘orphan’. The Google Books debate also showed that there are commercial questions about who might be able to allow access to ‘orphan’ works, and where any money goes.

The result is that an EU orphan works solution may well be designed to deal with academic archival uses, rather than commercial uses. That’s ok as far as it goes, but may mean many old recordings, films and books stay out of print even when they have been digitized.

So today is another good today for those of us who want modern, flexible copyright: but both Kroes and Cameron will need to hold to their principles if we are to get the benefits they are talking about.