I had a dream… Of a Copyright Reform

[ Written for Simon Says column on Computer World UK ]

Once upon a time, the 1886 Berne Convention was the only text governing copyright legislation both at International and European scale. In 1991 however the WIPO authorities decided that the convention should be renewed to adapt to the digital environment. Internet was just at its early stage by then, still an expert committee was judged competent enough to define a set of rules to apply to the barely born information society. The same year, the European Union adopted a directive saying that software should be subject to copyright, which, as such, was not a bad step forward.

The daily arrival of new technologies on the market did not facilitate the experts task though, getting them more and more confused day after day. In December 1996, a conference was finally held in Geneva to gather inputs from all over the world and after eighteen days of tough negotiations, the so called WIPO Copyright Treaty (WCT) was adopted. It was implemented in the United States in 1998 with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), and in Europe in 2001 with the European Union Copyright Directive (EUCD).

What is the particularity of this major text you might wonder. Well, it is just where all troubles started. By imposing legal remedies against the circumvention of technological measures used by authors in connection with the exercise of their rights, the WCT opened a Pandora box that would harm internet freedom for the generations to come. Five years later, despite unprecedented mobilisation from civil society mostly worried about privacy, access to authorised content and effective competition, the European Union adopted its shameful Copyright Directive where right-holders as opposed to authors would from now be the ones benefiting from the law, and technological measures – understand, digital restrictions management – would be legally protected for whatever content the right-holders would judge worthy of copyright protection – giving them full control over the definition of the subject matter.

All right. This was for the historical background. Now that thirteen years have passed and with no need to provide examples here of the damages caused by the EUCD – this could be subject to another article – politicians slowly start to get the idea that there is something wrong with the legislation since instead of adapting copyright law to the information society, the directive does in fact quite the opposite, hampering a healthy development of the latter. The Pirate Party greatly helped in bringing awareness on making the truth shine – see notably “The Case for Copyright Reform” by Christian Engström and Rick Falkvinge. Other initiatives also spread the idea that another copyright code could be possible.

In December 2013, the European Commission decided to take things a bit more seriously and launched a public consultation on the review of the EU copyright rules. Whereas the consultation addresses major concerns on the effectiveness of the protection and how copyright exceptions are dealt with in Europe though, it does not mention the Q question at the heart of all abuses ie. the drafting of the provisions with regards to technological measures – articles 6 and 7. In such circumstances, we might wonder whether the Commission’s objective is to actually get input from civil society on the multiple defaults of the legislation, or to keep it busy struggling with the eighty questions present in the consultation while the real legislative process is happening.

Paranoid, me ? Possibly – a little. But then, explain me * how comes * that a Directive on Collective Management of Copyright was adopted by the European Parliament the very day that was supposed to be the deadline for the consultation – ie. February 4th ? Fair enough : this was just about one particular aspect. But now that the deadline has been extended to March 5th, let’s think about keeping an eye on what the European Union is doing in between. As for our dream that an efficient copyright reform comes true some day in Europe : let’s keep it strong, and pursue all efforts started towards that goal. Old models will collapse just by themselves, you’ll see.