British Library calls for digital copyright action

U.K.'s national library says copyright law must be updated to curb the excesses of digital rights management.

The British Library has called for a "serious updating" of current copyright law to "unambiguously" include digital content and take technological advances into account.

In a manifesto released on Monday at the Labor Party Conference in Manchester, the United Kingdom's national library warned that the country's traditional copyright law needs to be extended to fully recognize digital content.

Unless there is a serious updating of copyright law to recognize the changing technological environment, the law becomes an ass.
--Lynne Brindley, CEO, British Library

"Unless there is a serious updating of copyright law to recognize the changing technological environment, the law becomes an ass," Lynne Brindley, chief executive of the British Library, told ZDNet UK.

Digital rights management (DRM) technologies and licensing agreements currently can impose restrictions on copying content that go beyond the requirements of copyright law. This needs legal clarification, according to the British Library.

"DRM is a technical device, but it's being used in an all-embracing sense. It can't be circumvented for disabled access or preservation, and the technology doesn't expire (as traditional copyright does). In effect, it's overriding exceptions to copyright law," Brindley said.

The British Library hopes to protect statutory exceptions and fair dealing, which enable libraries to make and preserve copies of content, and make them available for research purposes and for disabled people.

"This is a global, international issue," Brindley said. "We have to have the same balance as in traditional print. We are seeking a triage ensuring creators are rewarded but also that the public good is served."

The Open Rights Group, a digital civil-rights organization, said it "whole-heartedly supported" the British Library's call for a clarification of copyright law.

"One of the key problems is that the limitations and exceptions to copyright law are being ignored by business, which is imposing restrictive licenses on digital content," Suw Charman, executive director of the Open Rights Group, told ZDNet UK.

Charman said DRM restrictions could be particularly damaging for academic research.

"If a library carried a printed journal, academics and students could photocopy it. Digital journals have restrictions on access, which is a dangerous road to go down," Charman said. "If we allow companies to create their own licenses, we undermine copyright law. If we say contract law is more important than copyright law, it allows publishers to write whatever license they like, which is what is happening now."

The British Library said it hopes to play a leading role in moderating the debate between those who wish to make copyright law more restrictive and those who wish to radically reform it.

The British Library also called for the question of "orphan works"--content whose rights holder is hard to find--to be addressed.

"There's an enormous amount of material locked up because we can't trace the copyright holders," Brindley said.

Tom Espiner of ZDNet UK reported from London.

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