Making copyright accessible: KR21 launches video primers exploring how licences and inflexible exceptions undermine the balance at the heart of copyright law

Photo: Kushagra Kevat on Unsplash:

23 January 2023

Knowledge Rights 21 is happy to share two videos explaining some of the key issues around 21st century access to research, education and culture. These – the first in a series – address two key factors limiting access: 

i) the use of contractual terms and digital locks to override copyright, and 

ii)  the inability of the rigid European approach to copyright exceptions to deal with fast changing technology . 

We encourage you to watch them, share them, and use them in your advocacy!

In theory, copyright laws are supposed to be balanced, finding the best way both to uphold the rights of creators, and the rights of people in general to pursue education, research and access to culture. Practically, this balance primarily happens through the inclusion of exceptions and limitations to the monopoly rights provided to rightsholders in law.

However, are these exceptions designed in a way that supports education and research? ? Too often, the answer is no.

Private Contracts Undermining Copyright Law

A first problem is that when we’re talking about electronic works – eBooks, articles, databases etc – it is often the terms of the licence a library signs, rather than copyright law, that determines what users can do. With libraries often not in a position to negotiate these terms, they too often only have a choice between bad access and no access.

It doesn’t stop there –  digital locks (technological protection measures or digital rights management systems) can stop users doing things like copying a passage for a quotation, copying pages for research, machine learning as well as prevent libraries from sharing a copy with another library under laws allowing interlibrary loans. 

In short, they often prevent people doing things that are otherwise legal meaning that private interest is allowed to override the decisions of government who have decided that certain activities should be permitted by copyright law in the public interest.

These locks themselves benefit from protection in copyright law, and removing them or bypassing them can bring its own penalties. In other words, the law is used to protect activities that undermine the law!

View our video about licences and DRMs

We are commissioning research into how far contracts undermine the work of libraries, as an update to a study of 100 contracts done by the British Library in 2006.  However please take a look now at our video to get a summary of these issues, and the action needed.

The Need for Flexibility in Copyright Law

A second problem is in the exceptions themselves. European copyright laws typically permit use of in-copyright works for different purposes, but crucially, these possibilities tend to be narrowly defined.

Often faced with lobbying from copyright industries, governments have included restrictions that risk making these exceptions unworkable, especially in the face of changing technology and reasonable user expectations. This makes it far tougher for researchers, educators, students and others to use new technologies to undertake new innovative uses of copyright works, which harms innovation and scientific progress. .

If we want to refocus copyright on its core goal of allowing the enjoyment of the full range of rights, by creators and users alike, then more flexible provisions are necessary. Here too, we have commissioned research exploring the impacts of  “open norms”, but you can take a look already at our new video to understand more about this important issue. 

View our Open Norms video!

Of course, changing the law and the way it’s applied will take advocacy. Politicians are being told by big publishers, studios and music producers that ‘everything is fine’. They need to hear that it isn’t, and that they can do something about it to support new research and innovation

That’s why we’re happy to share these two new videos, in order to explain the issues, and what needs to be done about them, simply, attractively, and convincingly. They are openly licensed, so we encourage you not just to watch them, but to think how you can share them and use them in your own advocacy.

 If you’d like to make translations, get in touch, and we’ll help make this happen. 

You can also look out for more videos soon, and let us know if there are particular themes you’d like addressed in this way.

We would finally like to say a very big thank you to Caroline Ball from the University of Derby and Wikimedia Trustee for making these videos a reality.