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of intellectual property and growth, commissioned by the prime minister, has provided a roadmap for updating the UK’s outdated copyright laws.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

A young woman reading an e-book (Photograph: Getty Images)
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Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue