Copyright law needs overhaul to meet Internet needs, says EU lawmaker

A European Parliament report proposes unrestricted hypertext linking; limits to copyright terms, and tighter rules on use of DRM

European copyright laws are too fragmented and ill-suited to online usage today: Legislators drafting new rules should limit copyright terms; allow unrestricted hypertext linking; exempt public-sector works from copyright; harmonize rules to simplify cross-border commerce, and restrict the use of DRM.

That, at least is the view of Julia Reda, the European Parliament's rapporteur for the Legal Affairs Committee, who presented a draft report on Monday laying out the Parliament's agenda for the overhaul of EU copyright law. The Parliament will make recommendations to the European Commission which is drafting new copyright rules that it hopes to present later this year.

Current EU copyright laws, written in 2001, predate YouTube and Facebook, and online use of copyright material has evolved since. The 2001 laws allowed member states numerous exceptions and opt-outs. A common European copyright law is needed to safeguard fundamental rights and make it easier to offer innovative online services across the entire EU, according to Reda, who will present the report to the Parliament's Legal Affairs Committee on Tuesday.

Eliminating national variations in copyright protection would help greatly in the creation of a digital single market, one of the main goals of the Commission.

The new rules should also exempt public sector works from copyright protection, and the Commission should also recognize the freedom of rightholders to voluntarily give up their rights and dedicate their works to the public domain, she wrote.

What's more, Reda wrote in the report, limitations and access to content that is not subject to copyright or related rights protection should not be hindered by effective technological measures, also known as DRM.

Published works are copyright protected whether or not they are wrapped in DRM -- but the law affords an additional layer of protection for DRM, forbidding people to break it in many circumstances. That gives content owners the means to digitally enforce restrictions above and beyond those allowed by copyright law.

Reda suggested weakening the protections afforded to DRM in certain circumstances, allowing people to break the DRM to exercise rights such as the ability to make private copies where provided for by copyright law.

She also wants companies using DRM to be required to publish either the source code or the interface specification for it and, in the circumstances where circumventing DRM is allowed under copyright law, wants tools to circumvent it made available.

Being able to freely link from one resource to another is one of the fundamental building blocks of the Internet, said Reda, calling on Commission to clarify that hyperlinking "is not subject to exclusive rights, as it is does not consist in a communication to a new public."

Meanwhile, the varying lengths of copyright protection in the EU should also disappear, Reda said, proposing that copyright terms should be harmonized at the minimum established by the Berne convention. That treaty protects works for 50 years after an author's death, except in the case of cinematographic or photographic works. In the case of cinematographic works, protection would expire after a minimum of fifty years after the work has been made public. For photos, the Bern convention proposes a expired protection of twenty-five years from the making of the photo.

Reda also wants to make the common practice of sharing holiday snaps legal. Some countries have enacted laws to protect the images of certain public buildings from exploitation by postcard makers -- laws that could also trip up people posting holiday photos to social media.

"Copyright law can only be practical and fair if the depiction of public buildings and sculptures is exempt from copyright protection," Reda wrote, calling on the Commission to exempt photos and videos of such works located in public places.

To make the rules more in line with the current digital reality, Reda for instance called on the Commission to phrase copyright exceptions in a more technology-neutral and future-proof way.

In online quotations for example, people increasingly use audio-visual material like animated GIF images of popular TV series, movies or sports events. Rules that protect the freedom of expression and information in the digital environment should not be limited to the written word, but explicitly include audio-visual material, while allowing for possible future developments as well, Reda said.

The Legal Affairs Committee will now discuss and amend Reda's report, before voting in April on a final version to submit to the Parliament. The Parliament is set to vote on the report in May, around the time the Commission is scheduled to present its plans for an EU Digital Single Market.

Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, online payment issues as well as EU technology policy and regulation for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to loek_essers@idg.com

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