Copyright for a digital age

A rethinking of intellectual property law is long overdue.

We live in a digital age and therefore we should have a fully functioning knowledge-based economy. Why then do we remain saddled with a copyright framework more suited to the 19th century than the 21st?

At the British Library we estimate that by 2020 75 per cent of all books and journals will be published in digital form.  Add to that the exponential growth of the internet and the explosion of mobile technology, and we see that the world is a dramatically different place to the 1980s (the era of the Betamax and personal cassette recorder) when the last major change to copyright legislation took place. 

If through modernising UK copyright law, barriers preventing lawful digital access to a wide range of information can be lowered, UK researchers will have a new world of resources opened up to them, and the speed of discoveries and innovation will be accelerated. For example Japanese and American researchers – industrial or academic – can "mine" information lawfully from the internet and scientific journals there, but in spite of the explosion in “big data” in the UK we cannot. 

Previous governments over the past decade failed to cover themselves in glory when it came to updating UK copyright law. We had four reviews in six years and very little progress since. It is in this context that the efforts of the current government should be applauded. Last year’s Hargreaves review of intellectual property and growth, commissioned by the prime minister, has provided a roadmap for updating the UK’s outdated copyright laws.  As a package, it aims to make the most of new opportunities provided by technological advancements.

The Library recognises that many groups have a stake in this debate: from authors and publishers to the creative industries, higher education and the general taxpaying public.  Copyright reform is clearly an issue with many dimensions and many competing views. Yet it must reflect the realities of the day and we believe the benefits of reform would serve the widest interests of society and enable growth.

The British Library is looking at ways not only to increase access to our 20th-century collections, but also increase access in a way that meets the demands of 21st-century users.  Digitisation therefore plays a massive part in the Library’s current thinking.

However while the National Library of Norway is making all 20th-century Norwegian publications available online, and in France similar moves are afoot, due to UK copyright law this sort of ambition is impossible for the UK research sector in 2012. The need to get permission item by item (taking on average 4 hours per book) means that it would take a digitisation project of 500,000 items over a thousand years of rights clearance work. Even at the end of this we estimate over 40 per cent of the works would be “orphan”, that is to say the rightsholder would not have been identified or located.

Parliament is currently considering the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill, which goes some way towards implementing Professor Hargreaves’s recommendations. This includes licensing of orphan works and also introduces Extended Collective Licensing – a way of streamlining rights clearance en masse and a decades old feature of Scandinavian copyright regimes. Both these things are also currently being consulted on by the US Copyright Office. 

The Library has been supporting the legislation with one minor proviso: that in the case of orphan works, we can provide payment to rightsholders if and when they appear, rather than handing money over in advance to a governmental fund that will only rarely be used. 

All this adds up to very good news. It proposes a way forward that clears the path for mass digitisation while providing safeguards and guaranteeing remuneration for copyright holders. 

The government has also promised a future announcement on updating copyright limitations and exceptions – which in the UK are far behind those of other developed nations.  For example, copying sound recordings and film for personal research or preservation reasons is currently not permitted.  Additionally, in the age of “Big Data”, allowing text mining of information you have bought or have legal access to would be hugely beneficial to the research and technology sectors, improving Britain’s international competitiveness greatly.

The Library is hopeful for progress but past experience of delays and derailments means our optimism remains cautious.  By keeping this round of copyright reform alive – and with the level of ambition imagined in Hargreaves – the government could truly unleash the potential of discovery, innovation and growth for everyone.

Benjamin White is head of intellectual property at the British Library.

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Out with the old: how new species are evolving faster than ever

A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of diversification, as well as extinction.

Human population growth, increased consumption, hunting, habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species and now climate change are turning the biological world on its head. The consequence is that species are becoming extinct, perhaps faster than at any time since the dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago. This is an inconvenient truth.

But there are also convenient truths. Britain has gained about 2,000 new species over the past two millennia, because our predecessors converted forests into managed woodlands, orchards, meadows, wheat fields, roadsides, hedgerows, ponds and ditches, as well as gardens and urban sprawl, each providing new opportunities.

Then we started to transport species deliberately. We have the Romans to thank for brown hares and the Normans for rabbits. In the 20th century, ring-necked parakeets escaped from captivity and now adorn London’s parks and gardens.

Climate warming is bringing yet more new species to our shores, including little egrets and tree bumblebees, both of which have colonised Britain in recent years and then spread so far north that I can see them at home in Yorkshire. Convenient truth No 1 is that more species have arrived than have died out: most American states, most islands in the Pacific and most countries in Europe, including Britain, support more species today than they did centuries ago.

Evolution has also gone into overdrive. Just as some species are thriving on a human-dominated planet, the same is true of genes. Some genes are surviving better than others. Brown argus butterflies in my meadow have evolved a change in diet (their caterpillars now eat dove’s-foot cranesbill plants, which are common in human-disturbed landscapes), enabling them to take advantage of a warming climate and spread northwards.

Evolution is a second convenient truth. Many species are surviving better than we might have expected because they are becoming adapted to the human-altered world – although this is not such good news when diseases evolve immunity to medicines or crop pests become resistant to insecticides.

A third convenient truth is that new species are coming into existence. The hybrid Italian sparrow was born one spring day when a male Spanish sparrow (the “original” Mediterranean species) hitched up with a female house sparrow (which had spread from Asia into newly created farmland). The descendants of this happy union live on, purloining dropped grains and scraps from the farms and towns of the Italian peninsula. Some of those grains are wheat, which is also a hybrid species that originated as crosses between wild grasses in the Middle East.

This is not the only process by which new species are arising. On a much longer time scale, all of the species that we have released on thousands of islands across the world’s oceans and transported to new continents will start to become more distinct in their new homes, eventually separating into entirely new creatures. The current rate at which new species are forming may well be the highest ever. A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of great diversification on Earth, as well as a time of extinction.

The processes of ecological and evolutionary change that brought all of Earth’s existing biological diversity into being – including ourselves – is continuing to generate new diversity in today’s human-altered world. Unless we sterilise our planet in some unimagined way, this will continue. In my book Inheritors of the Earth, I criss-cross the world to survey the growth in biological diversity (as well as to chart some of the losses) that has taken place in the human epoch and argue that this growth fundamentally alters our relationship with nature.

We need to walk a tightrope between saving “old nature” (some of which might be useful) and facilitating what will enable the biological world to adjust to its changed state. Humans are integral to Earth’s “new nature”, and we should not presume that the old was better than the new.

“Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction” by Chris D Thomas is published by Allen Lane

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder