European copyright directive ‘opens door to mass digitalisation’

Librarians welcome new European rules on copyright, which also secures right for researchers to mine text and data

March 29, 2019
Structure covered in lightbulbs
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Light bulb moment: the copyright directive opens up ‘exciting new possibilities for libraries’

Librarians believe that a new copyright directive passed by the European Parliament could open the door to the mass digitalisation of books, films and audio recordings, potentially meaning fewer trips to distant libraries for scholars and students who need access to obscure material.

After years of debate and protest, MEPs passed the European Union’s new copyright directive on 26 March, a move that could have significant implications for libraries and universities.

The directive opens up “exciting new possibilities for libraries”, said Stephen Wyber, manager of policy and advocacy at the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions.

It should make it easier for libraries to digitalise documents that are still in copyright but are not commercially available. These could include radio broadcasts, out-of-print books and unpublished oral histories, said Ben White, a member of the legal working group at the Association of European Research Libraries.

It could help to make available “huge amounts of unpublished material with a big research value”, he said.

At the moment, libraries must seek permission to digitalise these documents one by one, painstakingly tracking down the copyright owner for each, he explained, meaning that digitalisation is not possible at scale.

The new directive, however, should make it possible for libraries to gain digitalisation rights in bulk from bodies that look after copyright – rather like how a cafe buys the rights to play a selection of songs rather than striking a separate licensing deal with each artist. The change is “really transformative and really exciting”, Mr White said.

It could spare students or researchers long trips to distant libraries just to view a document that does not exist elsewhere, said Mr Wyber.

The directive, he added, should also stop publishers placing “digital locks” on their material to prevent researchers from conducting text and data mining – sifting through mountains of material to find patterns with the aid of a computer, a technique considered vital to fields such as artificial intelligence. The change “will be a real boost for European universities and European libraries”, said Mr Wyber, and means that the EU will have “caught up a lot of ground” in relation to the rest of the world.

Universities and libraries have managed to carve out exemptions to the directive’s most controversial proposals, which will require online platforms such as YouTube to pre-screen uploaded material – like music or films – to ensure that it is not copyrighted, and will oblige them to pay newspapers for repeating anything other than short snippets of their articles.

There had been fears that these rules could place a heavy burden of checking on university repositories and force researchers to pay to quote from news articles in their work, but academic lobbying bodies now think these risks have been ironed out. But universities “cannot declare victory” until they see how the directive is actually implemented, said Mr Wyber.

The directive must still be approved by member states in April, although Mr Wyber expects it to be waved through. It also needs to be transposed into national law, meaning that the new rules set out by the directive will still not come into force for a “few years”, and could be open to interpretative tweaks by national governments, he explained.

But he and Mr White said it was unclear whether the UK would implement the directive after Brexit.

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