Legislating copyrights and wrongs

March 23, 2001

Teresa Hackett reports on how new EU copyright regulations try to balance the needs of right-holders and users.

It has been described as the most lobbied piece of European legislation. After three years winding its way through the legislative process, the European Union Copyright Directive was finally adopted by the European Parliament during its second reading in Strasbourg on February 14. Once ratified by the European Council of Ministers, the directive will be adopted into European law.

Under the directive, Europe will sign the World Intellectual Property Organisation Copyright Treaty, which extends protection for European authors, artists and creators internationally and adjusts Europe's copyright law to accommodate digital applications.

But despite much negotiation, harmony of copyright law in Europe was not achieved. This has resulted in a pick list of special provisions from which EU member states may choose. So libraries, users and consumers might end up with different rights in different countries. For example, a library in one EU state might be able to digitise print material already in its collection, while its European colleagues may not. This situation will not encourage the much touted borderless information society.

Nevertheless, the library community is pleased that a number of damaging proposals adopted by the parliament during the first reading in 1999 were overturned and that the delicate balance of interests between right-holders and users was essentially maintained. These both came under intense pressure during the second reading early this year, when an unprecedented 200 amendments were tabled by MEPs in the committee responsible for making voting recommendations on the directive.

The majority of amendments sought to give copyright-holders more power by curtailing library services and consumer rights or by introducing extra charges, for example, to allow copying by libraries only for archiving and conservation purposes. In the end, the strong user lobby prevailed and the parliament chose to reject most of the proposed changes.

But the parliament chose to further restrict consumers' limited right to make copies of online material for private use. Most damaging, industry has been given the right to control or prevent copying in the online environment by using technical blocks or contract terms, so-called click-on contracts where users either accept the terms of the contract or cannot gain access to the site. With no opportunity to negotiate the terms of use, this is most disappointing for a directive intended to promote an information society.

Once passed, the copyright directive should be implemented into national legislation in 18 months in line with the e-commerce directive of May 2000. With the high number of options in the copyright directive, the library and user communities in each member state must ensure that areas that have been safeguarded are fully implemented by national governments. On past European experience, the lobby is likely to be intense.

Teresa Hackett is director of the European Bureau of Library, Information and Documentation Associations.

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