Directors of major European cultural heritage institutions demand copyright reform

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Today, Europeana published an open letter to Commissioner Oettinger in which the directors of 29 major European cultural heritage institutions demand a reform of the European copyright rules that would allow their institutions to make more of their collections available online. This letter comes in response to the Commission’s intention to review parts of the existing copyright rules to make sure that copyright functions within the Digital Single Market.

In their letter (which can be signed by additional institutions here), the directors argue that their institutions are hindered by the fact that the existing exceptions and limitations benefitting their organisations have not evolved to reflect the ways that citizens access and engage with cultural content:

Europe’s public cultural heritage institutions are key to influencing and shaping our lives with unrivalled access to information, culture and our shared history. They promote knowledge, education, research and encourage the creation of new culture.

Ways to share and engage with cultural content have been transformed in a digital age, but limitations in current European copyright rules restrict that full potential. As a result, our institutions contain large collections established and cared for using public funds but they cannot be made easily available to the public online.

They continue their letter by pointing out that in its evaluation report of the InfoSoc Directive, the European Parliament has demanded more room for cultural heritage institutions that want to make their collections available online. In line with the demands made by Parliament, the letter asks for an update to the EU copyright rules that would make it easier for the institutions in question to provide online access to out-of-commerce works:

Let us be clear, when we ask for copyright rules that allow us to fully represent our collections online, we are not asking for rules that undermine the ability of creators, publishers or other intermediaries to earn a living from their creativity. We want the ability to provide online access to those works in our collections that are not actively exploited by their creators or subsequent rights holders. Improving online access to works that are not available via other channels helps promote creators whilst encouraging new creative activity.

[…] A copyright system that locks away large parts of our collections in museums or confines them to physical archives and libraries, that are not always easy to reach, benefits no one.

[…] We call on the European Commission to address these concerns in the upcoming legislative proposal on copyright. As recommended by the European Parliament in July, the proposal needs to include updates to the existing exceptions benefitting libraries, archives and museums. Those updates should allow our institutions to provide online access to our collections that are not actively managed or available via commercial channels, without having to obtain permission from the rights holders.

This letter comes at a time when the Commission has started to signal that online access to out-of- commerce works held by cultural heritage institutions may be part of what it considers ‘a targeted copyright modernisation’. On the one hand the cultural policies of the EU—and many of its member states—strive to promote online access to cultural heritage. On the other hand the existing EU copyright rules make providing such access extremely costly without benefiting anyone (including rightholders) in the process. Given this tension between the policy objectives and the realities of copyright, it seems clear that the Commission needs to include online access to out-of-commerce cultural heritage collections in its modernisation proposal.

With their letter, Europe’s cultural heritage institutions present a nuanced proposal that should meet the criteria recently laid out by the Commission. For example, in a speech at the Frankfurt Book Fair earlier this month, Commissioner Oettinger stated one objective is to ‘preserve the incentive to the publisher to invest as well as the safeguard for the author’. As pointed out by the cultural heritage institutions in their letter, copyright rules restricting access to works that are not actively exploited by their rights holders benefit no one. As a result, changing this situation for the benefit of all will not take away anyone’s incentive to invest and create.