For those of us looking forward to copyright rules that enable European cultural heritage institutions to provide online access to their collections, two important things happened last week: on Wednesday 29th October, the Orphan Works directive (OW directive) came into force and on Saturday 1st November, the new European Commission headed by Jean-Claude Juncker assumed office.
The first event marks the failure of the existing system, while the second one is reason to give us hope for a more meaningful modernisation of the European copyright system.
The fact that the current system does not take into account the needs of cultural heritage institutions is painfully illustrated by the Orphan Works directive. After years of legislative wrangling, Europe came up with a ‘solution’ for the problem of orphan works that requires cultural heritage institutions wanting to make orphan works available to undertake complicated searches for rights holders, before they are allowed to publish them. In most cases, the resources required for such searches are completely out of balance with the cultural and economic value of the work. This means that the Orphan Works directive may be a useful tool for making small numbers of high profile works available, but not as an enabler of mass digitisation projects.
The fact that the OW directive ended up as a crippled tool that fails to address the problem it was designed to answer (enabling mass digitisation of collections), is the result of a number factors: strong pressure from rights holders and their representatives to preserve the underlying principles of copyright even in a situation where they do more good than harm; the lack of coordinated advocacy efforts from cultural heritage institutions at the European Level; and a weak European Commission that was split on copyright.
With regards to the last point there is reason to hope that the situation is changing. The Juncker Commission that came into office on the first of November has made the modernisation of copyright one of its top priorities. In his mission letters to the Commissioners in charge of a connected Digital Single Market, Juncker made it clear that he expects his team to come up with ‘ambitious legislative steps’ towards ‘modernising copyright rules in the light of the ongoing digital revolution’ within the next six months.
In other words, the time to start fighting for copyright rules that enable cultural heritage institutions to properly function online is now! Continue reading