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Copyright for a digital age

A rethinking of intellectual property law is long overdue.

E-book
A young woman reading an e-book (Photograph: Getty Images)

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of intellectual property and growth, commissioned by the prime minister, has provided a roadmap for updating the UK’s outdated copyright laws.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.