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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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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