Copyright figures pretty heavily in these columns for the interesting reason that the Internet has made everyone who uses it subject to copyright’s details in a way that wasn’t the case 20 years ago. Then, copyright was something that impinged on the general public barely at all: you bought stuff like books and LPs, you used them, you lent them or gave them to your friends, you could even sell them second-hand. The idea of making copies just didn’t enter the equation, because it was simply too hard.
Enter the Internet, the ultimate copying machine. Everything we do only is copied as it passes across the network. That means an obscure 18th-century law, copyright, has suddenly become something that affects most people’s daily lives more directly than practically any other equivalent legislation. In particular, it is the law that most of us break routinely hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times a day. That’s not because we have all gone bad in the last two decades, but because an ancient idea is being pressed into service in a modern environment that is completely different from the one in which it was drawn up. Basically, copyright is not fit for purpose in the digital age.
It’s obvious what the problems are, and even what many of the solutions are. But getting them implemented in an updated copyright law has so far proved almost impossibly hard. That’s largely because powerful vested interests have done everything in their power to stop change and evolution coming to copyright, which has served them well for the past three centuries. But the cracks in that venerable edifice are now so gaping and dangerous that even the copyright maximalists have to admit that changes are needed.
As part of that belated recognition, the European Commission is finally undertaking a large-scale public consultation on copyright. As it says in the accompanying document (available in ODF format alongside the usual alternatives):
Over the last two decades, digital technology and the Internet have reshaped the ways in which content is created, distributed, and accessed. New opportunities have materialised for those that create and produce content (e.g. a film, a novel, a song), for new and existing distribution platforms, for institutions such as libraries, for activities such as research and for citizens who now expect to be able to access content – for information, education or entertainment purposes – regardless of geographical borders.
This new environment also presents challenges. One of them is for the market to continue to adapt to new forms of distribution and use. Another one is for the legislator to ensure that the system of rights, limitations to rights and enforcement remains appropriate and is adapted to the new environment. This consultation focuses on the second of these challenges: ensuring that the EU copyright regulatory framework stays fit for purpose in the digital environment to support creation and innovation, tap the full potential of the Single Market, foster growth and investment in our economy and promote cultural diversity.
You can find out more about how to reply on the consultation’s home page. There’s also an alternative approach, put together by a coalition of groups who want to encourage as many people to reply as possible. Its called youcan.fixcopyright.eu, and it allows you to filter the many dozens of questions for those that are most likely to be relevant to certain kinds of respondents – for example, businessperson, entrepreneur, etc. You may find this an easier way to cope with the wide range of issues that the consultation tries to explore.
Also useful is this guide from the Pirate Party MEP Amelia Andersdotter, who has put together some helpful model responses to the consultation, with explanations of why they are needed – it’s definitely worth looking through.
I’m mentioning this now, because submissions are due by 5 February. This is by way of a first gentle reminder that time is running out, and an encouragement to get thinking and writing soon. After all, we’ve been waiting for an opportunity like this for ages: let’s make sure we take it, and help the European Commission come to sensible and fair decisions about the shape of copyright in the digital age.
As a further subtle hint, next week I’ll be publishing details of my own response to the consultation.