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The British Library Releases Intellectual Property Manifesto
Posted On October 2, 2006
At what was called a "fringe event" of the U.K. Labour Party Conference, The British Library (BL) sponsored "IP Fee or Free? Public Access versus commercial opportunity in the digital age," an event that was attended by representatives from Microsoft U.K., Google, the Open Rights Group, and other industry heavyweights. Here The British Library released a document called "Intellectual Property: A Balance—The British Library Manifesto." The manifesto is short (only four pages), but it is strongly written and tackles the increasingly unforgiving intellectual property laws that BL states not only have consequences for the British economy but for preserving cultural heritage. The document presents a list of reforms to U.K. copyright law that BL feels are necessary, particularly regarding Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology.

"Our IP Manifesto sets out the unique role that the U.K. national library must play as both a leading voice and an honest broker in the debate that the digital revolution has generated," said Lynne Brindley, chief executive of The British Library. "As a publisher in its own right, the Library understands the opportunities and threats presented by digital to the publishing industries. As one of the world's great research libraries we are equally mindful of the threat that an overly restrictive, or insufficiently clear, IP framework would pose to future creativity and innovation."

What seems to have prompted the release of the IP Manifesto is the upcoming release of The Gowers Review, which is an independent review of the U.K.'s intellectual property framework that was established by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The Review is led by Andrew Growers, former editor of TheFinancial Times, and assisted by a small secretariat of civil service officials. The Review will report to the Chancellor, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, and the Secretary of State for Culture, Media, and Sport in autumn 2006.

According to the Gowers Review, the call for evidence is heavily concerned with IP related to patents, although it does acknowledge that technological changes have strongly influenced the nature of the IP landscape. According to the Manifesto, "Our overall aim is that the Gowers Review will embrace the wider picture, looking at our copyright regime and recognizing that the traditional IP balance must not be undermined if Britain's creative economy is to flourish."

The IP Manifesto states that BL believes DRM should be allowed but that it falls under the nebulous notion of "fair dealing" (fair use in the U.S.). And the fundamental problem in all DRM systems is that the systems alone cannot determine what is a fair and just use of the IP. BL recommends that the contractual underpinnings of DRM systems should not be " allowed to undermine the longstanding limitations and exceptions such as fair dealing in U.K. law." At the current time, however, BL argues that "DRMs are given close to total legal protection within the U.K., with no practical processes allowing for legal circumvention in the interests of disabled access, long-term preservation, or where the DRM prevents fair-dealing use."

Fundamental to The British Library's argument is that the same rules should apply for fair dealing access and library privilege in both the digital and the analog world . Therefore BL recommends that " limitations and exceptions [be] explicitly extended to the digital environment as is the case in international law."

But clearly preservation is foremost to BL, which expresses this with clear urgency: " We are facing up to the challenge of capturing and preserving the nation's creative output in a fast-moving digital world to ensure it is not lost for future generations. This is forming the nation's digital memory — for example we have signed an agreement with Microsoft to digitize and make free at the point of access on the web 25,000,000 pages of out of copyright material."

The Library takes up particular issue with its recorded works: " As the Library is not able to make copies of items, many original audio and film formats we hold are becoming increasingly more fragile and require the urgent creation of a preservation surrogates or face irretrievable decay." To this end, BL believes that the U.K. law does not permit the same types of preservation activities as do many other countries.

The British Library recommends that " the copyright term for sound recording rights should not be extended without empirical evidence and the needs of society as a whole being borne in mind. And that extension debate needs to be based on sound economic evidence and the needs of all members of our economy and society."

Of the six recommendations, the last two seek to bring The British Library more in line with other countries, particularly the U.S. BL wants the "government to look at how we in the UK can benefit from a light-touch system as proposed in the U.S. that actively enables the use of orphan works." And it also seeks to end "transitionally differential term of copyright for unpublished works created before 1988. We recommend that this is retrospectively brought into line with other rights terms—life plus 70 years."

According to the Open Rights Group blog, "This is very encouraging news indeed. Historically, IP debates have been dominated by corporate interests, with alternative voices simply not heard by legislators. Now the British Library joins the RSA ( The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce — commonly known as the RSA) and the British Council in calling for the return of balance to our IP framework. Balance in this context is shorthand for better representation of public —as opposed to private —interests entailing, for example, protection and expansion of the public domain and a more robust ‘fair dealing' mechanism. The Open Rights Group wholeheartedly supports this suggested direction for reform of IP law."


Press Release

PDF of the Manifesto

Gowers Review of Intellectual Property

Open Rights Group

Robin Peek was an associate professor at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Simmons College. She also wrote a monthly column called Focus on Publishing for Information Today.

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