Why UK copyright reform is needed

This is a guest blog post by Emily Goodhand. You can find her on Twitter as @copyrightgirl

As the Government last week admitted that changes to copyright law on 1st April are unlikely to go ahead as planned, it is worth pausing for a moment to understand the repercussions of this slippage for consumers. Why is it important for these copyright exceptions to become law?

1. Copyright law is out of balance with everyday consumer practice

There has been a trend in legislation over the last ten years or so to strengthen rights for creators of copyrighted works. Whilst it is important that creators of copyrighted works have ample recognition for their works and the ability to monetise those works, this trend has not been offset by amendments or additions to user privileges. As a result, copyright law is now out of balance with practices which have become commonplace in the digital world (such as making copies of lawfully purchased music to backup or play on another device). Making copyright law more appropriate for the digital age may help it recover some credibility and relevance in the eyes of consumers.

2. A balanced copyright framework enables economic growth across all sectors

The investigation into copyright reform was initiated by the Prime Minister David Cameron, who stated that Google could never have started their company in Britain owing to the ‘unfriendly’ copyright system. Although a system of fair use (similar to the US) is not on the cards, it is fair to say that the UK’s copyright framework does not adapt quickly enough to keep pace with technological advances. This was echoed by Professor Ian Hargreaves in his ‘Digital Opportunity’ report following the initial review of intellectual property. The government’s subsequent report, ‘Modernising Copyright’, estimated that bringing the law into the 21st century could contribute around £500 million to the UK economy over 10 years. Several reports (such as the one on the Singapore economy following changes to Singapore’s copyright law) have indicated that exceptions and limitations actually contribute to economic growth without damaging the creative and copyright industries. Exceptions and limitations should therefore not be overlooked or diminished when considering the economic benefits of copyright.

3. Our audio-visual cultural heritage is at risk

The permitted acts in copyright law at present do not extend to copying audio-visual works for preservation purposes. Archivists all over the country who are custodians of large collections of 20th century music, films and broadcasts are faced with the risk of losing older works as technology moves on and the ability to copy from one format to another disappears altogether. An update to the preservation exception would significantly help archivists and librarians in the cultural heritage sector and ensure that films, sound recordings and broadcasts are preserved for all to enjoy.

4. Research and scientific discovery is being held back

Research has rapidly become an activity which occurs across borders. The Internet allows researchers to collaborate quickly and effectively, and technology has enabled data processing on a vast scale. Current provision in copyright law for researchers restricts copying to non-audio-visual works only, which often puts researchers in the subject areas of film, TV and music at a disadvantage. There is also no provision for text and data mining, which could speed up knowledge discovery and save research costs. The proposed exceptions for research would be beneficial to researchers in all areas and accelerate scientific discovery.

5. Copyright law needs to take into account modern teaching practice

The blackboard and chalk of the classroom of thirty years ago has been replaced by interactive whiteboards, digital displays and multimedia software. Yet copyright law still reflects the literal ‘chalk and talk’ approach of yesteryear. Teachers are required to make lessons visually stimulating and accessible to all but often do not have the time to think about copyright clearance. Teachers should be able to include images and other content in their presentations without having to worry about copyright issues. The proposed exception for education takes into account the modern day teaching practices and will allow teachers to use any type of content in their lesson presentations.

6. Lack of accessible content for print-disabled people

Copyright law is currently too narrow to be of much use to those who are not covered by its definition of ‘visually impaired’. It does not cover, for example, people with a learning difficulty, such as dyslexia. Where accessible copies are available commercially, thereby negating the provisions in law, the cost is often too high for the user to afford. The proposed exception would level the playing field for people with any sort of disability which prevents them from accessing a copyright work and enable libraries to better provide loan copies for them.

It is fitting that last week heralded the 25th anniversary of the foundation of the Web. It is also 25 years since the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act received Royal Assent. Since 1989, the Internet and other types of new technology have changed the world dramatically. The copyright framework needs to reflect these changes and fit with the digital world so that information is preserved, respect for the law is regained and opportunities are not lost to competitor countries who have more flexible frameworks.