Thursday, June 14, 2012

Can reading to children really be against the law?

Despite some ridiculous applications of IP law, CI’s Jeremy Malcolm sees a chink of light in stakeholder discussions on copyright usage. 

Image by Ryan Lobo under Creative Commons attribution licence

Copyright law is a balance between the interests of creators and those of consumers.

Creators expect to be able to earn a living from their work, which usually involves selling or licensing the right to reproduce or publicly perform it, and copyright makes this possible.

At the same time, copyright allows consumers to make use of works in various ways that do not amount to an economic activity, including private uses such as singing a song in the shower, reading books to children, and copying a CD onto your portable music player.

At least, it does so in theory. In practice, some of these private uses have come under threat, often due to changes in technology.  

Mercifully, singing in the shower is still OK; but uploading a video of yourself singing to YouTube is a copyright infringement. Reading to your children is fine, but it was recently revealed that in Belgium, public libraries in which volunteers read story books to children are being charged money for that privilege. And copying a CD onto your portable music player, along with similar acts of format shifting, is still illegal in many countries of the world.

It is issues like these that prompted Consumers International, in partnership with BEUC(the European consumers association) and Copyright for Creativity (a joint industry and consumer initiative) to hold a meeting in the library of the European Parliament, hosted by Dutch MEP Mariette Schaake.  

The objective was to discuss these issues with copyright owners and MEPs, and to work towards agreement on short-term solutions that could be put in place while we wait for the law to catch up. Reflecting this, we titled the meeting “I Want it Now!: Creators Addressing Consumers’ Needs in the Digital Age.” 

The first part of the meeting took the form of three moderated debates on the topics:

·         There are uses of music in education that should never require payment;
·         Users and creators must be able to use copyrighted material to produce a new compound work for non-commercial purposes without needing a license; and
·         Consumers should be able to use lawfully-acquired/licensed copyrighted material for any purpose within their home and personal network.

Interestingly, it was not only consumer representatives who argued in favour of these propositions. In fact, those in favour in the first debate were Martyn Ware, founder of music groups The Human League and Heaven 17, and Konrad Boehmer, composer and ex-president of Dutch collecting society BUMA/Stemra.  

Those against included Boehmer’s colleague Robbert Baruch, current Manager for Public Affairs of BUMA/Stemra, as well as Marianne Rollet from the International Confederation of Authors and Composers Societies.

Following the debates, we discussed what could be done now to address the concerns that consumers had voiced.  

The copyright owners’ representatives did not accept all of the concerns, and correctly pointed out that some of them (such as the inability to access some content streaming or download services across borders, even within Europe) pointed to problems in the administration of copyright, more than to shortcomings in the law itself.  

Nevertheless, there was a consensus to work towards developing a joint best practice standard to allow for more flexible use of existing copyright exceptions or limitations, beginning with the right to make quotations (which is the only compulsory copyright limitation in international law).

This is an excellent starting point, since an appropriately broad and flexible application of the quotation right could facilitate many creative uses of copyright works for purposes such as non-commercial remixes, mash-ups, home movies, fan fiction and art, and online video sharing, the legality of which in most of Europe is currently ambiguous at best.  
If we can successfully develop a shared understanding with copyright owners on the flexible application of the quotation right, the outcome will provide a template for future law reform and may even open the door to further fair use rights for consumers being agreed in the future.

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