Digitising copyrighted film, books and music is probably going to become legal - it's about time

On 5 December the House of Lords will debate proposals to modernise copyright law for the digital age. If carefully implemented, it will benefit researchers, institutions and creatives alike.

The House of Lords will soon debate Government proposals to modernise copyright to make it fit for the 21st century economy. The debate will come hard on the heels of a recent court ruling in the US which showed how quickly the divide between the UK and other markets could grow if opportunities to respond to digital innovation are not taken.

After nearly a decade of legal dispute, Judge Denny Chin ruled earlier this month that the Google Books project – which seeks to digitise, make searchable and viewable, small extracts of the world's printed heritage, including in-copyright material – is legal in the US. If upheld on appeal, this will be seen as a judgement of real significance. Our legal framework in the UK is very different, but in an increasingly connected global economy, we'd be wise to keep a close eye on what's happening in other major markets.

Copyright law moderates our use of information and knowledge, protecting the rights of creators while enabling appropriate use by others. In the UK, the latest attempts to modernise copyright have their roots in the 2011 Hargreaves Review, commissioned by the Prime Minister. The report had UK competitiveness at its heart, indicating where we could do more to support growth and innovation through the use of intellectual property.

Libraries play a unique role in the ecology of information and innovation. As a Legal Deposit library, the British Library has a double duty: to collect and preserve in perpetuity the work of creators and thinkers, and also to enable access to that intellectual heritage for researchers of all backgrounds who wish to study and make use of it. Librarians have an important role in copyright awareness, navigating this complex field of law for users of public libraries and the estimated 15 million people in education.

The new proposals for UK research in the Hargreaves Review are now being taken forward by the Government, and those relating to libraries and archives are especially important. Copying for digital preservation would become lawful, including sound recordings and film for the first time. For an institution that has to look decades, even centuries, into the future, this is vital.

Researchers would gain greater access to in-copyright sound and audiovisual material with the ability to copy sections of works for private, non-commercial purposes. It would also be possible to digitise in-copyright collections for visitors to use on library premises. And all of this could be done without the risk of being overridden with contracts.

Of course, these measures will be carefully and sensitively implemented. My own background is in media and broadcasting, and I believe the creative industries – authors, designers, filmmakers – are one of the UK’s greatest assets and success stories. Indeed, the British Library’s Reading Rooms are used on a daily basis by many from these sectors. The new copyright exceptions are not and cannot be about undermining the legitimate interests of creators. Rather, the goal is to foster an environment where knowledge can be accessed and used in ways that benefit researchers, creators, and the increasing number among us who are both.

Judge Chin argued that increasing access via Google Books is justifiable because of its potential to support the arts and sciences, to increase access to books and make them even more discoverable by readers, to support new kinds of research, and to stimulate new markets and sales.

The proposed UK changes are far more modest, and are in many ways introducing digital copyright norms that other countries adopted years ago. Without doubt, however, they would enable greater, proportionate access to knowledge than is currently possible. Lawfully building on the knowledge and creativity of others drives innovation and discovery. That should be seen as a good thing for UK culture, creativity, industry and the economy as a whole.

Roly Keating is Chief Executive of the British Library

Researchers accessing online archives at the British Library. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images.

Roly Keating is Chief Executive of the British Library.

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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.