The copyright conundrum: do the critics have a case?

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It has been a year since the last London Book Fair, and although many changes have come to the publishing world since then, one aspect has remained stubbornly stuck in replay mode – the debate surrounding copyright, says Victoriano Colodrón, Copyright Clearance Center

Copyright continues to undergo serious scrutiny. Its most extreme detractors call for abolishing the entire system. Its defenders insist that although the system may have its flaws, they can be fixed and copyright is still the best way to support innovation and a sustainable creative economy.

Both sides agree that, when it comes to sharing content, we live in a largely electronic, digitised, web-based world. Technology is rapidly disrupting existing business models. The timeline of innovation has been shortened and is getting shorter all the time. Because of this, many who champion unfettered access to knowledge and entertainment say the old rules of copyright no longer apply.

The copyright system is flawed, says a recently published so-called Copyright Manifesto. A report presented to the European Parliament a few weeks ago says more exceptions and limitations to copyright should be introduced without remuneration to rights-holders. Around the world we are hearing that copyright 'needs to be fixed' and 'needs to be modernised', and copyright law reforms are being discussed or have been recently passed in Brazil, Australia, Indonesia, in European countries or at the European Union level.

But who really would ultimately benefit from these copyright critics’ demands? Does copyright really bar innovation and creativity, as some claim? Or is the real problem not about copyright law, but rather about finding efficient business models and better ways to achieve balance – to satisfy the information needs of end users while ensuring that rights-holders receive fair compensation for the use of their work?

In fact, the most vociferous critics may not be considering what it takes – and what it costs – to create, distribute and provide remuneration for high-quality works of knowledge and art. And as with any hot-button issue, deep conflicts of interest are at play.

Technology companies, for example, have managed to frame the copyright issue as a problem and continue to fuel the debate with an ‘us-against-them’ slant. Yet, these companies' own ability to innovate, and to enjoy the market compensation that comes from it, is founded on the legal protections of patents and trademarks – and indeed copyrights themselves – to safeguard their own intellectual property.

Of course, applying old laws to new realities presents very real difficulties. As creators and users attempt to apply the principles of copyright to the workings of the global digital exchange, they enter areas such as copyright licensing where more needs to be done to fulfil present needs, expectations and workflows.

At its best, copyright provides a framework for the relationships among rights-holders and between rights-holders and the consumers of content.  So how can we – authors, publishers and licensing organisations who depend on a smoothly running system of permissions and protections – get copyright to work correctly? For copyright to fulfil its ultimate goal, the legal underpinnings of a modern and effective copyright system need support from at least three complementary components: licensing, enforcement and education.

The signatories of the Berne Convention had it right: if you want to use a copyrighted work, you first need permission from the copyright holder. If we authors, publishers and other stakeholders who directly or indirectly benefit from copyright want to preserve this irrefutable cornerstone, we must make the process as easy as possible for users to lawfully do what they want with content and for the creators and distributors of that content to be fairly compensated in return.

Ultimately, we need a fair and balanced copyright system that includes exclusive rights, streamlined ways to license these rights and room for appropriate exceptions and limitations that stay exceptional and do not harm the rights-holders’ ability to continue creating and producing new works. Such a system will be a positive force for economic, artistic and cultural progress everywhere.

Victoriano Colodrón is senior director of international relations at Copyright Clearance Center. CCC is the leading global rights broker for the world’s most sought-after materials, including in- and out-of-print books, journals, newspapers, magazines, movies, television shows, images, blogs and ebooks. The company provides solutions that simplify the access and licensing of content, letting users quickly get permission to use copyright-protected materials, while compensating publishers and content creators for the use of their works. Colodrón will be presenting on the topic of The Copyright Conundrum on Thursday 16 April, 10.00 to 11.00 at The Faculty at London Book Fair.  For more,