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We shouldn't play fast and loose with intellectual property

Copyright reform needs to be handled carefully.

Bodleian Library
Books at the Bodleian Library's storage facility in Swindon (Photo: Getty Images)

In his recent blog post, Benjamin White of the British Library sets out a vision for copyright in the 21st century wholly at odds with the reality of life in 2012. Everywhere one looks in the digital economy, content creators and the companies which support them are working within the copyright framework to ensure that works are available online. It might not be perfect yet – very few developing technologies are – but we are clearly well on the way to making it so. 

The case for radically altering the copyright framework is simply not made. Yes, there is a strong case for making necessary, minor amendments. British creators supported such proposals when they were first made by the Gowers Review in 2007 and we support their reiteration by Hargreaves in 2011. We at the Publishers Association have also taken the lead in developing the Copyright Hub, a proposal for developing online licensing taken forward by Richard Hooper, based upon a Hargreaves recommendation.

Publishers are also leading the way in developing data and text mining, ensuring that licences are similar across different platforms and working towards a “click-through” process.  But to ensure that the systems that promote this technology are not compromised, and to ensure that valuable data repositories are not exposed to mass infringement, it is vital to ensure that mining processes are governed by a system of  managed licensed access. The blunt tool of a copyright exception would damage legitimate users of mining technology and is the wrong answer where the key question is the need for uniform technological standards.

The problem of orphan works is already being addressed, both by the EU’s Orphan Works Directive, adopted in September 2012, and the UK’s own provisions, currently moving through Parliament in the Enterprise & Regulatory Reform Bill. White fails to mention the development of the ARROW project (the Europe wide programme to develop an automated rights registry for orphan works. (ARROW’s trial with the British Library indicates that some 21 per cent of its works are orphan – significantly less than the 40 per cent that the BL estimates.) The British Library believes it should not have to pay for use of these in-copyright works; but respect for copyright and an acknowledgement that the enjoyment of a work should be associated with a payment, is a fundamental cornerstone of intellectual property.

Reform of copyright requires careful study and analysis. The Hargreaves Review failed to provide detailed economic research to back up many of its claims and the Review leader has publicly confessed that many of the economic benefits were guesses. Some proposals were not subject even to an estimate. So before the government and parliament go any further with taking forward reform proposals, they should ensure that there has been a robust, thorough and balanced assessment of their impact. In particular, proposals which would have the effect of undermining investment, growth and jobs in the creative and knowledge sector should be sent back to the drawing board.

Richard Mollet is chief executive of the Publishers Association