10 years of COMMUNIA, a decade of copyright reform: how far did we get?

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Last week, on June 15, COMMUNIA celebrated its first 10 years. To mark the event, we decided to revisit the 14 policy recommendations that were issued at the moment of our foundation, and that have been the guiding principles for our advocacy work in the last decade.

We launched a new website, dedicated to reviewing the implementation of these policy recommendations. 10 years on, it is possible to see that half of our recommendations have been implemented – fully or partially -, and the other half remains unfulfilled. Most importantly, almost all of the recommendations are still relevant.

Where victory can be claimed: freeing digital reproductions of public domain works and giving access to orphan works

One of COMMUNIA’s main objectives since its foundation has been to promote and protect the digital public domain. Therefore, when the EU Parliament decided to follow our Recommendation #5 and proposed the introduction of a provision in the new Copyright Directive, preventing Member States from protecting non original reproductions of works of visual arts in the public domain with copyright or related rights, we were exhilarated. Article 14 not only reconfirms the principle that no one should be able to claim exclusive control over works that are in the public domain; it’s also the first EU piece of legislation to expressly refer to the concept of “public domain”.

Getting the “public domain” to enter the EU acquis lexicon was a major victory for user rights, but for sure more measures are needed to effectively protect the Public Domain. Our Recommendation #6, which called for sanctioning false or misleading attempts to misappropriate or claim exclusive rights over public domain material, has not been implemented and is more relevant than ever, particularly on online content sharing platforms. Here, a false ownership claim can easily lead to the false blocking of public domain material, as a result of the use of automated content recognition systems combined with the lack of public databases of ownership rights (that’s why the German legislator has recently adopted measures against this type of abuse, setting a new standard for the protection of the Public Domain).

Another victory coming out from the recent EU copyright reform relates to the creation of an efficient pan European system that grants users full access to orphan works (Recommendation #9). The first attempt of the EU legislator to address this issue, through the Orphan Works Directive, is widely considered a failure, since the Directive only works for a small number of cinematographic works. However, the provisions on the use of out of commerce works in the DSM Directive provide a comprehensive solution for the problem of orphan works (by definition orphan works are also out of commerce and so these provisions also apply to them) (cf. Articles 8-11).

Where major advances have been made: mandatory exceptions to copyright and open access to publicly funded resources

Recommendations #3, #9, #10, #12 all asked for the creation and harmonization of exceptions and limitations to copyright, and we have seen major advances on this topic in recent years. Cultural heritage institutions now benefit from a set of mandatory exceptions regarding uses of orphan works and of out-of-commerce works, and for preservation purposes. There is a new exception for the benefit of persons who are blind, visually impaired or otherwise print-disabled, and the Commission has recently concluded a consultation on the availability of works for persons with other disabilities, which might lead to further developments in this field. The fields of education and research were also considered in the recent EU copyright reform, with the approval of new exceptions for text and data mining, and for digital and cross-border teaching activities. New mandatory exceptions for quotation, criticism, review, caricature, parody or pastiche on certain online content-sharing platforms are also part of the Article 17 package. Finally, the CJEU has recently indicated that the exceptions and limitations of the Copyright Directive that are aimed to observe fundamental freedoms might be mandatory for Member States (cf. the judgments of 29 July 2019 Funke Medien, C-469/17, para. 58; Pelham, C-476/17, para. 60; and Spiegel Online, C‐516/17, para. 43), which means that there is a possibility of further harmonization of exceptions in the coming years through judicial development.

Certainly, more progress is needed in the area of exceptions and limitations, particularly after the massive shift of education, research and cultural activities to the online environment, following the pandemic closure of institutions. Not only do we need a higher level of harmonization among Member States, but also flexibility to adapt this legal framework to rapid societal and technological changes. Therefore, our recommendation #3 to harmonize exceptions and open up the exhaustive list of user prerogatives is still highly relevant.

In the past decade, we have also seen great advancements on the issue of open access to public funded resources. Recommendations #11, #12 and #13 asked for publicly funded digitized content, research output, educational resources and public sector information to be made publicly available free from restrictions. Over the past years the idea that publicly funded resources need to be available to the public has gained traction not only among policy makers but also within the vast majority of cultural heritage and research institutions. Initiatives from public research funders have led to the increasing adoption of open access policies within the academic research sector. In 2013 the scope of application of the PSI Directive was extended to libraries, museums and archives. Also, Member States are required to ensure that documents on which those institutions hold intellectual property rights shall be re-usable for commercial or non-commercial purposes  under the Open Data Directive. This means that this set of recommendations has been partially implemented; the principle that public money should result in public access has not, however, yet been universally accepted.

Where nothing has changed: terms of protection, registration, technical protection measures, and alternative reward systems 

The excessive length of copyright protection combined with an absence of formalities is highly detrimental to the accessibility of our shared knowledge and culture. Therefore, a decade ago, we recommended reducing the terms of copyright protection (Recommendation #1). Unfortunately the trends in the past decade have gone in the opposite direction. The proposed term extension for performers and sound recordings, which we had recommended not to be adopted (Recommendation #2), was approved by Directive 2011/77/EU. Furthermore, the rules for establishing the duration of the term of protection of individual works remain fragmented and highly complex, contrary to our Recommendation #4.

On the issue of formalities, while our Recommendation #8 to grant full copyright protection only to works that have been registered by their authors has not been implemented, it has become increasingly clear that, for the copyright system to continue to function, registration of works will become ever more important. Over the past year the EU legislator has been making a number of baby steps towards systems to reserve or claim rights. These have been mostly as a condition to expand exceptions and limitations further, with rightholders being given the right to opt out from certain permitted uses of their works if they express such intention by specific means: this is the case of some text and data mining activities, where rightholders have the right to prevent those activities provided that they expressly do so “in an appropriate manner” (cf. Article 4(4) of the DSM Directive), and it is also the case in the context of the use of out-of-commerce works by cultural heritage institutions (cf. Article 8(3) of the DSM Directive), where rightholders are allowed to opt-out through the EUIPO Out of Commerce Works Portal. Yet, the new Commission’s Intellectual Property Action Plan reveals the intention to look deeper into how “to promote the quality of copyright data and achieve a well-functioning “copyright infrastructure” (e.g. improve authoritative and updated information on right holders, terms and conditions and licensing opportunities)”.

Another area where there were barely any changes to the EU policy is the area of technological overrides of exceptions and limitations. The only improvement we have seen in the new Copyright Directive is that the beneficiaries of the new exceptions have the right to require the technical means necessary to use TPM-protected works even when the work was acquired under contract and made available across the internet (something that was not the case under the InfoSoc legislation). However, the vast majority of EU Member States do not have mechanisms in place to grant users access to TPM-protected works. This means that technical protection measures can still significantly inhibit the use of works under exceptions and limitations. In other words, it is about time for the EU lawmaker to recognize this problem and implement our Recommendation #7, allowing users to circumvent TPMs when exercising rights under exceptions or when using public domain works.

Finally, our last Recommendation (#14), advising lawmakers to switch the focus of their policies from extension of copyright protection and enforcement of rights to alternative rewards systems and cultural flat rate models has also not been implemented.  Since we have issued this recommendation we have seen massive changes in the way cultural expression and exchange are taking place online, with the emergence of subscription services for creative content and new creator cultures that rely on advertising driven platforms. Copyright plays an important role in these business models but any real solution to ensure a fairer distribution of the economic benefits of these models likely requires intervention way beyond copyright alone.

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