EU copyright rules holding back cultural institutions

Cultural institutions play a huge role in our European heritage, but they are being held back by our current copyright rules, writes Catherine Stihler.

Catherine Stihler | Photo credit: European Parliament audiovisual

By Catherine Stihler

12 Jul 2016

Scotland has a long history of investment in libraries and I am proud to say that I live in Dunfermline, the birthplace of Andrew Carnegie and home to the first Carnegie library. 

I know from experience that libraries and cultural heritage institutions deliver key public services, as creative spaces for citizens, guardians of European history and essential hubs for research. Libraries in particular have undergone an incredible transformation recently, becoming powerhouses of lifelong learning.

They also underpin creativity. Europe's 70,000+ libraries spend approximately €4.2bn annually on books and other materials. National implementation of the rental and lending directive means authors receive additional remuneration for loans. Finally, libraries offer a valuable platform for promoting writers to the public.


Libraries and cultural heritage institutions support the European knowledge economy at all levels. However, their potential to do more is being held back by current EU copyright law. In particular , by the fragmented implementation of the limitations and exceptions that should allow them to do their jobs.

As I noted in my parliamentary question of July 2015, our history and culture defines who we are. Libraries and cultural heritage institutions are central to the preservation of our rich, diverse, shared European patrimony.

These actors have been quick to see the potential of digital technologies for preserving and giving access to their collections.

To realise this, they need the right to undertake large-scale digitisation, including of more recent works that are not commercially available. Yet today, this is not the case in three-quarters of member states, while none have laws allowing digitised works to be shared freely.

This is why we need updated rules that allow for the digitisation and cross-border supply of such documents for non-commercial research and private study. If works in collection are no longer on sale, it should be possible to put them online for non-profit use.

As I have said before, the future is digital. Libraries provide a vital public space, and if future generations are to enjoy them, they need to be able to embrace technology.

In 2013, I launched an open knowledge campaign for increased and fair access to eBooks in public libraries in Scotland. Library eBook lending services in Scotland varied from the best in Europe to none at all. Across Europe, the variation is just as wide.

Libraries should be empowered to deliver content in all formats, especially using the newest technologies.

For people with visual impairments, such tools can make the difference between reading and not reading.

Yet the current framework does not allow libraries need to buy and lend eBooks with confidence. Advocate-General Szpunar's opinion in case C174/15 is welcome and I look forward to the final judgement.

Text and data mining (TDM), notably of works held by library and cultural heritage institutions, will be central to a successful European knowledge economy.

But Europe lags behind the US and China, passing over medical and other scientific advances, as well as the potential for jobs and growth. We can catch up if we reform copyright.

Crucially, this is not about giving free access to copyrighted works, but simply letting researchers make the most of what libraries have already paid for. 

Today, they are either unable to do this or forced to use inadequate tools. The resulting low demand limits revenue for rights-holders means countless missed opportunities for Europe as a whole.

I look forward to exceptions that explicitly permits TDM for both non-commercial and commercial purposes, fully realising the technique's scientific and economic potential.

Strengthening exceptions and limitations would enrich cultural diversity, allowing cross-border access to information and boosting research. To ensure this happens, we must close the loopholes that can cancel out their effects.

As the law currently stands, libraries can see themselves constrained to sign away their rights, for example such as in contracts for journals.

Moreover, once such a contract exists, they are barred from using tools to get around any technological protection measures rights-holders may put in place; measures to stop them doing the things the law explicitly permits them to do.

The upcoming reforms package must include provisions that protect exceptions and limitations in the InfoSoc directive from being overridden in this way.

In times of uncertainty, unemployment and austerity, I believe that libraries and cultural heritage institutions can improve the lives of their communities. 

As a signatory to the Hague declaration, I also believe in the huge potential economic and societal benefits of knowledge discovery in the digital age. And I believe in a copyright framework that can make all of this a reality.


Read the most recent articles written by Catherine Stihler - Citizens and research: The forgotten voices of copyright reform

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