Copyright should be the same for digital media, say researchers

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A British Library survey has revealed that users want the same rights with digital information as they have with print

UK researchers want to be able to copy parts of electronic materials for non-commercial research in the same way that they can with print, according to a new study.

In a recent British Library Intellectual Property survey, 93 per cent of UK researchers agreed that anyone involved in non-commercial research should be allowed to copy parts of electronically-published works such as online articles, news broadcasts, film or sound recordings.

In addition, 87 per cent of respondents said they should be able to use exceptions with digital media. Exceptions to intellectual property rights for print media include archiving and news-reporting rights and education exceptions.

Particularly important for many academic researchers is the fair-dealing exception. This allows copies to be made from in-copyright work without permission from, or payment to, the rights holder provided that it is for non-commercial research, private study, criticism, review or news reporting.

In the survey, 68 per cent of the respondents said that the fair-dealing laws should be the same whether the material is in paper or in electronic format. This is not the case for electronic media today, according to Ben White, intellectual property manager at the British Library. ‘In the digital world, databases, journals and books aren’t covered by copyright but by contracts,’ he explained. ‘Copyright has been agreed over many years as a careful balance between the needs of the rights holders and those of the users but contracts are really about the rights of the rights holders.’

White and his colleagues at the British Library have analysed many publisher contracts for digital information. They have found that more than 90 per cent of them do not permit users to do as much with the information as they would be allowed to do with print publications under copyright laws.

Tackling the issue now

White believes that it is important to tackle this issue now. ‘By 2020 we estimate that 80 per cent of information will be available digitally, and 20 per cent of the information will only be available digitally,’ he pointed out. ‘A lot of money is being spent on e-resources but the contracts are more restrictive.’

What’s more, the details of the contracts differ greatly between publishers. ‘Some are more restrictive and some are less restrictive – we found one contract that doesn’t even allow users to print out material,’ said White. Such a situation makes life very difficult for both libraries and users. ‘The British Library collections grow at 15km per year and have a lot of digital objects within them. We can’t have different usage conditions on an object-by-object basis or the users of our reading rooms would have to be intellectual property lawyers,’ he pointed out.

This new survey forms part of the British Library’s response to a recent UK Intellectual Property Office consultation. ‘We are arguing that the exceptions shouldn’t be overruled by contract law,’ said White. The clarity that the British Library is asking for in UK law has already been implemented in other European countries such as Ireland, Portugal and Belgium. In addition, the Development Agenda of the World Intellectual Property Organization, being led by Chile and three other Latin American countries, is arguing for minimum exceptions, such as international law for intellectual property.