Copyright Week: Why the Right to Share Principles matter in the digital age

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Gabrielle Guillemin

17 Jan 2014

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A free and open internet is essential to foster speech, encourage democracy through activism, and inspire creativity and innovation. However, copyright enforcement threatens many of the benefits that can be gained from such a powerful tool for free expression and creativity. We must not allow this to happen. Progress must not be shackled to the legal frameworks of the last century.

With its ability to make copies available across borders on an unprecedented scale and at minimal cost, the Internet sent shockwaves to the copyright world. Here was a medium that escaped the copyright holders’ tightly-controlled monopole over the distribution of copies. Unsurprisingly, they hated it. They saw in it a golden opportunity to make vast amounts of money from every single copy and click of the mouse. This is no exaggeration. In Europe, copyright holders are arguing in multiple fora that various types of linking infringe copyright or that browsing should be subject to copyright authorisation. That’s also how we’ve ended up with copyright holders, with the help of companies such as Apple or Amazon, telling consumers that access to cultural goods on their iPad or Kindle is only going to be licensed to them and that they don’t own it.

But it doesn’t stop here. We’ve also seen the creative industries pushing for increasingly tough enforcement measures, whether through the infamous SOPA legislation in the US or through back-room international trade deals such as Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) and the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP). The whole gamut of restrictive measures includes criminal penalties for non-commercial sharing and circumvention of Digital Rights Management measures, three-strikes’ laws, website blocking and notice-and-takedown procedures with no meaningful remedy. The list goes on. More often than not, all this takes place behind closed doors despite the serious negative impact these measures have on Internet users’ rights.

But are all these restrictions really necessary?  At ARTICLE 19, we believe that copyright restrictions on the right to freedom of expression have gone too far. Little girls should not have their laptops confiscated when they accidently download their favourite song from a file-sharing site. Internet users should not be sent bogus cease-and-desist letters or threatened with million-dollar lawsuits for downloading a few songs. We believe that copyright laws need to adapt to keep pace with digital technology; they need to adapt to consumer demand and cultural practices in a global economy built on ideas and innovation. People have a legitimate expectation that their fundamental right to receive and impart information and ideas will be supported and not limited by copyright.

Following the defeat of ACTA, the EU launched a public consultation on EU Copyright law. This is a chance for people to make their voice heard on issues such as should hyperlinking be subject to copyright? Should file sharing be legal? Should search engines and other internet intermediaries by liable for copyright? Should the current copyright term of 70 years after the death of the author be reduced? It’s not just Europeans who can help – the consultation is open to everyone.

The way forward

So what should copyright policy look like?  Last year, ARTICLE 19 and others took a shot at what we think are key principles to properly balance the right to freedom of expression and copyright. The Right to Share Principles are action and policy oriented. Some key recommendations include:

  • The decriminalisation of non-commercial copyright infringement;
  • No website blocking without a court order;
  • Comprehensive measures for promoting access to knowledge and culture;
  • Transparency and full human rights assessment of all trade treaties dealing with copyright protection. 

These may seem pretty basic or fairly common sense. But to governments and the creative industries, it is far from obvious and the subject of many battles.

For over two centuries, the copyright monopoly has remained unchallenged. Now it’s time for internet users to fight back.

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