Copyright has always been a minefield, and it’s been made more hazardous by the way that sentiment over its place in the digital world has become more confused.
The rise of digital technology stoked up protectionist fears by making it too easy to copy, share or illegally re-sell content. But we’re now in an era when the ability to make something new out of existing content – moving from data mash-ups to app creation – is making copyright more of a hindrance in some eyes. Public authorities with an eye on the economic potential of the latter are feeling increasingly torn between protecting the original creators and giving the next wave the chance to show what they can do.
Neelie Krose, the EU commissioner with the digital brief, has acknowledged the conundrum with a speech crying out for copyright reform. Her language leaned towards worries that copyright is getting in the way of progress; she said the 2001 EU Copyright Directive isn’t fit for the 2010s and that there’s a risk of copyright becoming an irrelevance.
So there has to be reform. Fair enough, but what type of reform, and how is the EU going to make it all fit a landscape that keeps on changing? There are a hell a lot of details to resolve and devils in all of them. Providing a legal framework that protects the original content creators yet still gives the re-use innovators a chance to succeed is going to be a difficult and highly contentious job.
The most obvious recent precedent, the EU Data Protection Regulation, has prompted plenty of observers to claim it is unworkable and could yet be mangled by the Council of Ministers. I suspect that copyright, an issue even closer to the lawyers’ hearts, is going to create even more dissent.
This doesn’t mean that the EU shouldn’t try to deal with the issue, but this is going to be a drawn out process with a lot of grey areas. Those innovators are going to feel increasingly impatient, but also scared at the thought of being financially clobbered if they break the law.
I expect there will be some enterprising legal minds, or even non-legal entrepreneurs, ready to take advantage of this with services that promise a quick and easy way to clarify the legality of using specific content. If they offer a reliable service in checking the origins and licensing terms of specific content they can provide the reassurance that the innovators are looking for – at a price.
These services shouldn’t be particularly complicated, and will probably involve steps that a lot of people could take for themselves. But legal matters always seem very complicated to most of us, and they’ll find plenty of takers among the digital entrepreneurs who don’t want to get burned.
There’s money in that minefield.