UK copyright reform affects fair use, format-shifting and big data

The British government has unveiled a comprehensive raft of measures aimed at modernizing copyright in the country. This is pretty much what it promised to do in 2011 in response to the Hargreaves Review, which it had commissioned.

Some of the measures are terrifically obvious, none more so than the legalization of format-shifting – yes, copying music from a CD to your iPhone is still technically illegal in the UK, although no-one gets prosecuted for it.

Others bring the UK much closer to the U.S. fair use system. For example, a copyright exemption will now be brought in for parody, caricature and pastiche. In other words, stuff like that Newport State Of Mind parody will no longer be illegal. Witness the tentative relief of Rob Manuel, the man behind the hilarious and usually NSFW B3ta:

Bafflingly, the government says it will “allow limited copying on a fair dealing basis which would allow genuine parody, but prohibit copying disguised as parody”. The Intellectual Property Office, which the reforms will put in charge of “clarifying areas where there is confusion or misunderstanding on the scope and application of copyright law”, clearly needs something to keep it busy.

The reforms should have a big impact on the educational and research sectors. Again with some absurdity, the current IP regime makes it legally risky for teachers to show copyrighted material over interactive whiteboards and distance-learning systems – this will be fixed, as will the ban on allowing the copying of sound recordings, films and broadcasts for private study and non-commercial research.

Don’t go thinking this is exactly like the U.S. fair use system, though. As a spokesperson for the government’s business department handily spelt it out for me:

“The proposals to reform UK copyright exceptions include a number of specific exceptions which are limited by a requirement that any use of the exception be fair dealing. This is not the same as the US ‘fair use’ approach which allows a broad range of unspecified uses as long as they are fair.”

Still, much closer than before. There’s good news too for people with disabilities: the reform gives them the right to “obtain copyright works in accessible formats” if an accessible version isn’t already on the market.

And for those doing big data research? The reforms will also “allow non-commercial researchers to use computers to study published research results and other data without copyright law interfering”.

“Making the intellectual property framework fit for the 21st century is not only common sense but good business sense. Bringing the law into line with ordinary people’s reasonable expectations will boost respect for copyright, on which our creative industries rely,” business secretary Vince Cable said in a statement.

“We feel we have struck the right balance between improving the way consumers benefit from copyright works they have legitimately paid for, boosting business opportunities and protecting the rights of creators.”

Which is very true. If you’re trying to get people to stop unlawfully copying stuff, as is the case with the UK government, you’ll want to legalize the kinds of copying that people don’t even know are illegal. It’s a lot easier to sell a system that makes sense.

The government also reckons that the changes will contribute “at least £500m” ($813m) to the UK economy over the next 10 years. I suspect that precise figure has been pulled out of someone’s posterior, but the research implications alone should generate significant value.