25th Oct 2016


Let's fix EU copyright law

  • Europe's copyright legal framework is "a relic" (Photo: Ken Hawkins)

The web today is far more than a network or platform - it’s also our collective canvas.

A global public canvas is an exceptional thing. It spurs innovation and creativity. It unlocks opportunity, empowers educators and fuels economies. In the 21st century, we should have laws that enshrine the power of the web.

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But in the EU, some laws haven't yet caught up with the web.

Current copyright legal framework in the EU is woefully outdated. A messy patchwork of laws in various countries is stifling innovation and freedom of expression online. This is a framework that was created when the postcard, not the iPhone, was the primary way of saying hi from a distance; when cameras didn’t fit in our pockets; and when “gif” hadn’t yet entered the dictionary.

As a result, technologists and content creators are afraid to innovate. And researchers are hesitant to mine data that could unlock scientific progress.

Europe's copyright legal framework is a relic. It doesn’t account for the way we access, share and create content and culture today. Consequently, the way many Europeans live their lives online is technically illegal.

That’s not hyperbole.

An app developer who is re-purposing existing content in new, innovative ways may be violating copyright law. Why? The existing copyright legal framework often doesn't allow technologists to iterate and build on existing material.

A teacher who uses news articles and papers in the classroom may be violating copyright law. Why? There are scarce copyright provisions or exceptions for education.

A DJ performing a mash-up of popular songs may be violating copyright law. Why? Again, the existing copyright legal framework doesn't allow reproductions or derivative works without the express permission of the copyright owner.

A traveller who posts a selfie with the Eiffel Tower at night is violating EU copyright law. Why? The Eiffel Tower’s night-time light array is copyrighted and tourists don’t have the artists’ express permission.

It’s time to fix copyright law. It’s time to harness technology - not repress it, or twist it to suit business models of decades past.

We're not asking to legalise plagiarism or piracy. It's important that creators are treated fairly, including proper remuneration, for their creations and works. As a former journalist and someone who has worked in media for a long time, I deeply care about treating creators properly. But wrong-headed copyright law dissuades internet users from working freely.

The good news: We have an opportunity to make a difference.

This autumn, the European Commission plans to reform the EU copyright framework. We need to call for copyright reform that fosters creativity, free expression and innovation online. People in the EU and around the world need copyright law that complements and enhances the internet’s potential, not undermines it.

We must build in openness and flexibility to foster innovation. Technology advances swiftly, and laws often can’t keep pace. That’s why our laws must be future-proof, designed so they remain relevant in five, 10 or even 15 years. We need to allow new uses of copyrighted works in order to expand growth and innovation. And we need to build into the law flexibility - through a User Generated Content (UGC) exception and a fair dealing clause - to empower everyday people to shape and improve the internet.

We need a new copyright framework that fits squarely in the 21st century. Let’s correct copyright law and keep the web our collective canvas.

Katharina Borchert is chief innovation officer at Mozilla and former CEO at Spiegel Online.


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