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Changes to UK copyright law and how they could affect you

28 March 2014   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Gus MacDonald

It is not every day that we see major changes to UK copyright law. The suite of proposed statutory instruments (hopefully to become law on 1 June) unveiled yesterday by the Intellectual Property Office (part of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) represent an extremely significant update to UK copyright law, for the educational sector, for consumers, as well as for libraries and their many users.  In fact arguably they are some of the most significant and enabling changes for these groups for a century

What impact could these copyright law changes have?

Well in short, I suspect the devil will be in the detail. It will take a while for LACA (the Libraries & Archives Copyright Alliance) to sift through and formulate its own views on these important changes (watch this blog!), but in the meantime the Intellectual Property Office has produced this helpful guide to the proposed changes for libraries, archives and museums.

However, for those of you who can't wait, here are some headlines (opinions expressed are solely my own and do not express the views or opinions of my employer etc etc etc):

The proposed drafts go a significant way towards making UK copyright law “format neutral”, meaning that the law will now recognise for example that those doing research and personal study are just as likely to copy an excerpt from a sound recording or a film as they are from a book. The same goes for libraries who want to preserve their collections of sound recordings and films just as much as their paper collections. Teachers and lecturers will also be able to include any type of content in their presentations, which was not the case until now.

Vitally importantly, those in research and education will in many instances now be able to apply the existing flexibilities that exist in UK copyright law (the so-called limitations and exceptions or permitted acts like “fair dealing”) irrespective of contractual terms to the contrary.

This is particularly important in a library context of course, given that most students and researchers never see the contract negotiated between a university library and a publisher. It will also give universities protection and legal certainty in regards to contracts they are given that are based in foreign laws – I cannot imagine many university staff are particularly familiar with the intricacies of §108 of the US Copyright Act, for example, or even “fair use” for that matter.

It certainly feels right to me that UK citizens (and educational organisations for example) will now have the ability to rely on the permitted acts in UK copyright law as legislated upon by the Houses of Parliament, rather than have to interpret the copyright laws of other countries.

Very interestingly, the drafts also contain a proposal for what is called “text and data mining”, “content mining” or sometimes “data analytics.” The government has recognised that in an era of big data, much value can and is being derived from computers “reading” and “analysing” data that exists in text, images and other types of copyright works. Data-driven innovation in part depends on computers being able to interrogate the zetabytes of data now at our disposal.

This proposal (although limited to non-commercial use because of the EU Copyright Directive) will go some way to close the digital innovation gap with countries like Japan, Singapore, the US and South Korea, who have been able to mine any in-copyright material to which they have lawful access (including UK in-copyright content of course!), while we haven't been able to under our own intellectual property laws. In this thought-provoking Guardian article from 2012, this situation was compared to a dystopian world where meteorologists and astronomers were denied computer access to weather and astronomical data.

The Wellcome Trust, probably the largest private investor in medical research in the 20th century, has highlighted for years that, while scientists and their computers have had access to the minutes of science in electronic journal form for nearly 20 years, they have been unable to legally use computers to “read” and analyse the material they subscribe to, or have access to on the internet. Subject to these drafts coming into law on 1 June, this situation will now change for those who perform non-commercial research.

Exceptions for disabled people have been widened too, so any British citizen irrespective of the type of disability they have will be able to access in-copyright works in a format of their choosing. Before the exceptions, this only related to people with visual impairments. Hoorah!

Although not an education or library-related issue, the changes will also allow individuals to lawfully make private copies of CDs etc that they have bought. The UK has long been an anomaly on this front, with most countries having what is known as a “private copying exception” in their copyright laws. Good news I am sure for many.

How did these changes come about?

It has taken a while to get here, of course. Those of you who follow policy developments in this area will remember that many of the proposed updates formed part of the 2005 Gowers Review of Intellectual Property under the previous Labour government. The current proposed changes to the law come as a direct result of David Cameron announcing, at a technology sector meeting in Shoreditch in November 2010, that his Government would review IP laws “to see if we can make them fit for the internet age. I want to encourage the sort of creative innovation that exists in America.” 

Ian Hargreaves CBE was appointed to run the review. Though now a professor of digital economy at Cardiff University, he had a strong background in the media industry as the ex-editor of the New Statesman and The Independent – an industry which, like many other creative industries (and universities, schools, researchers and citizens), has had to adapt to the advent of digital.

For our sector, the major difference between Professor Hargreaves' findings (the final report being aptly named Digital Opportunity) and the Gowers Review was its unrelenting focus on the importance of research and education in a modern knowledge economy. Probably for the first time, we saw an insistence that copyright laws which promote research and education also promote the needs of a healthy digital economy. Not only that, but we also saw a broad range of proposed measures designed to nurture all aspects of our increasingly knowledge-intensive economy. As the conclusion to the Digital Opportunity report states:

“The Review’s specific recommendations are designed to support our increasingly intangibles- intensive economy. 

This requires:

  • an efficient digital copyright licensing system, where nothing is unusable because the rights owner cannot be found ( this of course resulted in the Digital Copyright Exchange / Copyright Hub);
  • an approach to exceptions in copyright which encourages successful new digital technology businesses both within and beyond the creative industries;
  • a patent system capable of preventing booming demand for patents causing serious barriers to market entry in critical technologies;
  • reliable and affordable advice for smaller companies, to enable them to thrive in the IP- intensive parts of the UK economy;
  • refreshed institutional governance of the UK’s intellectual property system which enables it to adapt organically to change.”

Four years later, the second point has resulted in the following statutory instruments being issued yesterday:

Copyright law and the UK digital economy

As someone whose first job was in the educational publishing industry and now works in a research library, I realise we need a robust information industry, just as we need a healthy R&D environment. 

My view is that these measures have been carefully and sensitively implemented, and over time will show that changes to copyright law are not a “zero sum game”, with winners by definition resulting in losers. Access to knowledge results in innovation and creativity, and many of us are creators as well as consumers – the two are symbiotically intertwined.

The aim of these modernisations to copyright law – many of which do no more than put us on an even footing with the rest of Europe – is to try and foster a legal and fully functional digital environment that supports an innovative UK digital economy, and treats citizens as digital citizens. It certainly seems to me this is a significant step in the right direction.

What do you think about the proposed changes to copyright law?

Let us know in the comments.

About the author

Benjamin White is the Head of Intellectual Property at the British Library and currently chairs the legal working group of the Conference of European National Librarians.

Published: 28 March 2014

Contributor: Benjamin White

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