A Digital Copyright Exchange for the UK

The Hargreaves Report recommends streamlining and simplifying the UK's copyright and licensing processes. But is there a political appetite to bring about change?

An independent report by Ian Hargreaves, Professor of Digital Economy, Cardiff University, has recommended the creation of a Digital Copyright Exchange to simplify and streamline rights and licensing processes.  The report: Digital Opportunity: A Review of Intellectual Property and Growth was delivered to the UK government in May 2011.

UK and EU copyright law

Hargreaves points out that existing UK copyright law is in dire need of an overhaul, that the UK has not even taken advantage of useful exemptions permissible under EU copyright law, and should do more to support an EU-wide patent system and EU patent court.

The UK's copyright law is based on the Statute of Anne issued in 1709 so it is not surprising that it is not working very well in the digital 21st century. Many people think the issue is just about teenagers downloading music illegally, but the current law is also blocking important medical research, hampering innovation and creativity across many sectors, and preventing the digitisation of national cultural assets.

How the current situation hinders growth

The law is already falling into disrepute, with many ordinary consumers neither knowing nor caring whether they can legally make a backup of an ebook or CD they have bought or which online download services are legitimate. Meanwhile, the livelihoods of individuals working in the creative industries, such as photographers, can be damaged by unlicensed use of their work online. Technology startups can find themselves mired in 'patent thickets' as they try to protect their own intellectual property or purchase the licences they need to make their products and services work. Serious academic and medical researchers are afraid to use new techniques and technologies such as data mining, because these involve making copies of data and databases.

A Digital Copyright Exchange

Hargreaves does not suggest adopting a US-style 'fair use' approach to copyright legislation, but makes 10 recommendations, of which the creation of a Digital Copyright Exchange has gained the most attention. A 'one-stop' Digital Copyright Exchange, he argues, would help both creators and users of content to buy and sell rights easily and transparently, and that this would stimulate the digital economy. As rights holders add their content, a 'bank' of easy-to-licence content would become available for use. A significant change would be to amend the law to allow the licensing of orphan works - works of which the original owners are unknown or untraceable - as this would allow content holders to digitise and release such assets without the huge costs of trying to trace their origins. Any work not in the Exchange would be presumed to be 'orphaned' and therefore available for release.

The Exchange itself would not be a mechanism for pursuing pirates, but Hargreaves claims there is little hard evidence that piracy is in fact a huge problem. He suggests instead that content creators should focus on providing services that are enticing, easy, and cheap for consumers, as the best disincentive to piracy is to make legitimate purchase a more attractive option.

What next for the recommendations?

It is certainly the case that for broadcasters, publishers, archives, libraries, and other content owners or users, managing rights and licensing is hugely complex and time-consuming, so anything that makes the processes easier to understand and apply would be beneficial. Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt and Business Secretary Vince Cable were reported to have welcomed the report, but whether the government has the appetite to put the recommendations into practice remains to be seen. Hargreaves points out that past calls for reform of the UK's copyright law, such as the Gowers Review in 2006, have largely fallen by the wayside.

Fran Alexander, Taxonomy Manager, Information and Archives, BBC. The views expressed are her own personal views and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer.

Image courtesy of Mikeblogs via Flickr.