Address the Mess: European Commission Workshop on Research, Access and Copyright

In spring this year, the European Commission invited a range of stakeholders, including Knowledge Rights 21, to a workshop to discuss the findings of a series of academic and research papers published last year commissioned by DG Research, Technology and Development (DG RTD). These papers were commissioned in the context of Policy Action 2 of the European Research Area Policy Agenda, focusing on how to promote an EU copyright and data legislative and regulatory framework fit for research.

Following the structure of the papers, the session focused first of all on questions around copyright, and its impact on the ability to undertake and share research. It also sought to explore the impact of new (e.g. Digital Services Act) and proposed data and platform laws on research institutions.

We’ve already summarised the four papers here, but by bringing the authors together with experts and advocates in order to explore the issues in more depth, a number of the key conclusions from this work became clear. 

Time to address the mess

A recurring theme on the first day was the level of confusion and inconsistency that characterises the European legislative framework surrounding research. The lack of clarity in EU law, coupled with the optional nature of research exceptions, had delivered what one could expect: an uncoordinated and fragmented mess.  

Take the example of two researchers involved in a cooperative project in different EU Member States. Each researcher could face very different rules around working with copyrighted materials and sharing information and data will most likely not be possible.

Not only undermining the fifth freedom (the free movement of knowledge) this fragmented regime holds back Europe from fulfilling its potential to be a single research space, drawing on the power of cross-border collaboration to deliver faster, higher impact research.

A first order concern, treated as a secondary priority

The workshop highlighted another important concern for Europe’s competitiveness: the EU has, so far, simply not taken the ability of researchers to do their job and the impact this has on innovation (e.g. through knowledge transfer) seriously enough.

Too often, laws are passed with either cursory or no consideration at all of what they might mean for the possibility to carry out research and for knowledge institutions to engage in public-private partnerships. The recent initiatives around the regulation of platforms are symptomatic of this.

Knowledge Rights 21 raised the question of why the EU remains an outlier in international copyright systems by artificially dividing commercial from non-commercial research. It also asked why the EU persists with a shopping list of inflexible exceptions in contrast to the US and many countries in Asia which have decided to introduce open copyright norms to support technological and scientific innovation.

While, in the past, there may have been a tendency to place the interests of righstholders in existing works ahead of those of the researchers creating new ideas, the tenor of the debate suggested there might finally be a change in emphasis going forward.

Faced with the urgency to support research, not just in order to ensure Europe’s future competitiveness, but also to respond to key environmental and social challenges, the pressure to reset the way that policy is made is growing.

A first step: Secondary Publishing Rights

Among the ideas debated, there was a lot of discussion around a Secondary Publishing Right. This would ensure that all publicly funded research could be published, immediately, via open access repositories, regardless of more restrictive terms and conditions imposed by publishers.

The concept had already featured strongly in one of the contributing papers, which presented it as a powerful step that governments could take, complementing more researcher, institution, or funder-led initiatives such as the development of rights retention policies.

Since then, the idea has also featured strongly in the Council Conclusions of 23 May 2023, which seeks to  confirm that this is an idea whose time has come, and a definite potential focus for legislation under the next Commission and Parliament.

The workshop is of course just one step in a longer and more complex process. However, the release of the Council Conclusions points in the direction of a more ambitious agenda for Europe’s researchers and educators from 2024 onwards. Knowledge Rights 21 will continue its strong engagement in Brussels in order to accelerate the momentum. 

13 July 2023