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Friday, September 15, 2006

Copyright law hinders scholarship in the UK

The British Academy has previewed a report to be released on Monday that will show how UK copyright law hinders scholarship in the humanities and social sciences.   Excerpt:       

A report from the British Academy, to be launched on 18 September, expresses fears that the copyright system may in important respects be impeding, rather than stimulating, the production of new ideas and new scholarship in the humanities and social sciences.

It is in the nature of creative activity and scholarship that original material builds on what has gone before – ‘if I have seen further, it is because I had stood on the shoulders of giants’ – therefore provisions that are overly protective of the rights of existing ideas may inhibit the development of new ones.

Existing UK law provides exemption from copyright for fair dealing with material for purposes of private study and non-commercial research, and for criticism and review. “There is, however, little clarity about the precise scope of these exemptions, and an absence of case law” said John Kay, who is Chair of the Working Group which oversaw the Review. “Publishers are risk-averse, and themselves defensive of existing copyrights.”

The situation is aggravated by the increasingly aggressive defence of copyright by commercial rights holders, and the growing role – most of all in music – of media businesses with no interest in or understanding of the needs of scholarship. It is also aggravated by the unsatisfactory EU Database Directive, which is at once vague and wide-ranging, and by the development of digital rights management systems, which may enable publishers to use technology to circumvent the exceptions to copyright which are contained in current legislation.

The Academy publishes with the report a draft set of guidelines for Fellows and scholars on their rights and duties under copyright legislation. They include

  • authors and producers of original creative material should understand that their interests in copyright are not necessarily identical with those of publishers and should not rely on publishers to protect them
  • the law should be clarified - statutorily if necessary – to make clear that the use of copyright material in the normal course of scholarly research in universities and other public research institutions is covered by the exemptions from the copyright act.
  • publishers should not be able to use legal or technological protection through digital rights management systems to circumvent copyright exemptions
  • the growth of digital databases should be monitored to ensure that ready access continues to be available for the purposes of scholarship

Comment.  The US suffers from all the same problems except the EU Database Directive.  I wish the US National Academies, perhaps joined by the AAU, would say so and recommend the same remedies.  In both countries, the set of remedies could be expanded to include the first-sale doctrine for digital content, Lawrence Lessig's Public Domain Enhancement Act, a reduction in the term of copyright (at least prospectively), and clarification that search indexing is fair use.

Update. The full report is now online (September 18, 2006).