Cameron: copyright is out of date

David Cameron has admitted that UK copyright law is out of date, and needs to be fit for the Internet age. Specifically, he noted that companies like Google in the United States benefit from “fair use” copyright provisions. Roughly speaking, this which allow people do what they like with copyright works, so long as this doesn’t doesn’t stop the copyright owner from making sales. This is open ended. So scanning a book you have bought, indexing content, or changing a CD to an MP3 at home, can be “fair use”.

People who like the US system say that this allows greater flexibility as the law evolves to fit new, legitimate uses of copyright works.

In UK law, however, you can only do what copyright law says you can. So format shifting is still a copyright infringement until the law changes. Similarly, making parodies is not permitted, so is a copyright infringement, whereas they are permitted in the USA. Many academic uses are still banned.

In the UK, each new user right in copyright has to be argued out. When the Labour government proposed a series of new flexibilities in the Gowers Review, lobby groups like the BPI, IFPI, MPA and Publishers Association argued that each change would threaten their economic interests and levies on equipment like, for instance, blank media, printers or computers might be needed to compensate them.

This makes copyright reform very difficult compared to the natural evolution under USA fair use. This is why companies like Google think the US system is better. It generally helps users of copyright works.

The problem David Cameron will come up against is that “fair use” may be difficult, if not impossible, to establish in current European law. EU copyright does not allow a general, US-style “fair use” provision, but has an exhaustive list of possible user rights, like format shifting, back ups and parodies. Each EU country chooses which rights they wish to allow.

The prize is big: innovation and flexibility for citizens and tech industries rather than the dead hand of maximalist copyright laws. But we’ve been here before, after Labour’s Gowers report, so we know the fight will be hard. In this, we wish the coalition good luck.