The Hargreaves Report and copyright law in the UK

Last Wednesday (18 May), Professor Ian Hargreaves of Cardiff University published his review, commissioned by Prime Minister Cameron, of copyright law in the digital age.

The Hargreaves Report, by comment consent, recommended some much-needed changes but falls short of the ‘radical overhaul’ of copyright law demanded by many. Similar to the way the 2010 Digital Economy Act was concerned largely with targeting illegal digital downloads, the focus of the report is on protecting the intellectual property of  the copyright holder (the traditional approach) rather than offering ways that incorporate the idea of fair use, which would require new, innovative models.

Fair use is where significant portions of a work can be replicated without permission as long as the work or reputation of the copyright holder is not denigrated.

For example, I would’ve liked to have used a snippet from a Beatles song called I’ll Follow the Sun for – not surprisingly – our recent e-learning conference. The snippet is available on Wikipedia. When you further investigate the licensing, you’ll find that it’s been uploaded because it qualifies under the US fair use laws. But we don’t have a similar law in the UK, so I didn’t use the song, although clearly my intent was not malicious. The Hargreaves Report looks set to ensure this continues. 

That said, the Hargreaves Report does make a number of useful suggestions for UK copyright law:

  • legalising the practice of copying music and films for personal use (i.e. allowing the consumer to choose his or her media format)
  • the creation of a Digital Copyright Exchange for orphaned works whose copyright holder cannot be established
  • relaxing the laws on parody (see for example the Newport State of Mind video)

Having flexible, fair and transparent copyright laws in the UK is vital if open educational resources are to become as mainstream here as many would like. These laws have to include fair use. President Obama’s announcement in January of a $2 billion fund is an acknowledgement of how central OERs are likely to become in education.

This week, Net pioneers led by Mark Zuckerberg and Eric Schmidt have been lobbying the G8 summit in Paris against increasing attempts to regulate the Internet and especially the Web. Central to this has been the thorny issue of intellectual property.

But when it comes to copyright law, the traditional approach consistently trumps any innovative model. At least in the UK and EU, which is in the process of updating its intellectual property laws in a way that may make even the modest loosening up recommended by Hargreaves difficult to enact, that doesn’t seem likely to change in the near future.

Simon Kear

Keeper of the Media Zoo

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