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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.

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

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

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