09 June, 2013

The Future of Copyright in Australia?

With the release of the Australian Law Review Commission's Discussion Paper on Copyright and the Digital Economy just a mere few days ago, I thought it'd be a good vehicle through which to look at the prospects of Australian fair dealing. The Paper is merely a discussion of the points brought up by the ALRC and invites other parties to submit their opinions on the points brought forth, but nonetheless provides some great insight as to the possible changes in the Australian law in the coming years.

The Future of Fair Dealing

The ALRC frames the need for change in fair dealing as a part of the new digital economy, where consumers and companies alike are going progressively more and more digital. People consume less physical goods as opposed to their digital counterparts every year. With improvements in Internet speeds and availability in most countries (notably the NBN here in Australia in coming years), this does make sense. Old laws which applied predominantly to physical goods don't relate to this sphere anymore. Users also want to be able to disseminate that content, and with services like YouTube being an avenue to showcase your creativity to the masses, the law should adapt (a great TED Talk by Lawrence Lessig spoke about this some 6 years ago). The Canadians have shown the way forward, but other nations are still trailing. Even the ALRC admits that "there is now more of an appetite for a broad, flexible exception to copyright".

Fair dealing should be flexible, adaptable and mold according to the needs and wishes of the changing environment we live in. Technology is changing at a hugely rapid rate, and fair dealing has failed to change with it. As many have pointed out in their early submissions to the ALRC, the law should be an open-ended list, not merely a short hand-down list of very specific categorical possibilities with no amount of leeway. As was so eloquently said in the submissions, the law should "respond to future technologies, economies and circumstances that don’t yet exist, or haven’t yet been foreseen". Should Australia go the way of the United States? I wouldn't argue to opt for a carbon copy, but some elements have to be taken from the US approach, possibly allowing for a more open catch-all provision for fair dealing should an act fall outside of the permitted exceptions today. This would allow flexibility, yet still retaining the fair dealing we have today.

Submission also dealt with the possible impact of proper fair dealing provisions and how they would allow for more innovation and create space for creative industries to blossom more. Arguably this is completely true, as the possible use of a few seconds of a film or even a few chords from a song can potentially amount to infringement. The attitude seems to have shifted from a defensive position to an offensive position, changing copyright legislation from a shield to a sword. My argument would be for strong fair dealing provisions, allowing for a balance between creators and rights owners, taking the position back to the legitimate protection of content, not the pure 'cashing-in' on the popularity of something through litigation. Submissions to the ALRC also seem to agree that proper fair dealing provisions "counterbalances what would otherwise be an unreasonably broad grant of rights to authors and unduly narrow set of negotiated exceptions and limitations". 

One has to also point out a disconnect between what consumers think they can do and what they actually can do by law. Also the ambiguity as to the extent of the existing provisions does not aid this. Submissions point out that there is a "growing mismatch between what is allowed under
copyright exceptions, and the reasonable expectations and behaviour of most people as a significant problem". When thinking about this one can understand that the rift between what people want to be able to do with their content and what they can do has been growing for some time. This again is attributed to the inability for the law to change and evolve according to the needs of the people, and due to the pendulum of protection firmly swaying towards the rights owners. In the words of Google's submission: "flexible and technology-neutral exceptions permitting consumers to make personal uses of legitimately purchased content would greatly restore people’s faith that the law makes sense"

As there were calls for the improvement of fair dealing, so were there calls for its adequacy and the lack of a need for change. Some submissions stated that "the existing exceptions are adequate and appropriate... [and] the common law was capable of addressing the needs of promoting innovation". I would personally wholly disagree with this. Current fair dealing provisions do offer ways for the use of copyrighted materials, but their limited scope and the absence of proper user-generated content provisions shows a lack of adaptability to the digital world. Also some submit that it "has not been shown that the Australian common law system is incapable of addressing the needs of promoting innovation through case law development". Again, I would disagree, as this distorts the separation of powers; the courts are there to apply the law, not to make it. It should not be up to judges to have to adapt the law - the law should adapt before for the need for the judiciary to do so through interpretation.

Some submissions also call against more open-ended fair dealing provisions, as through their opinion, this would create expense and uncertainty as to the law through the lack of clear-cut rules or categorized exceptions. I will partially agree with this position, although purely for the possibly ambiguity of the law. More relaxed or undefined fair dealing provisions would initially lead to a lack of clear borders as to their application, but as has been shown by the US, the judiciary will in time set its boundaries and a standard of 'fairness' would be set. What this initial confusion allows for is the better future adaptability of the law, giving the judiciary the power and ability to change existing standards according to new wishes by consumers or technological changes. The costs for possible litigation could potentially go up, but as I personally lack the knowledge in this area I cannot say exactly whether this would hold true.

Proposals for Reform

The ALRC seems to agree with the position that flexibility is desired and that it would assist innovation. A possible "fair use regime will: employ technology neutral legislative drafting; assist predictability in application; minimise unnecessary obstacles to an efficient market; and reduce transaction costs".

The 'fair use' provision suggested by the ALRC would be determined through four factors (however the list of factors would be left open-ended): the purpose and character of the use; the nature of the copyrighted work; the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and the effect upon the market for or value of the copyrighted work. These factors would be the same as what is used in the US at the moment, and don't differ much from the existing factors used in Australia (specifically related to research and study). This approach would be substantially very similar to the current standard employed by the Canadians through CCH. Arguably this would be the best position to go from, as standards could be applied through the use of US and Canadian decisions to help establish an Australian standard much quicker, causing less ambiguity in the provision's extent.

The Commission also suggests a non-exhaustive list approach, including current provisions and adding ones dealing with for example non-consumptive uses, quotation and education. Providing a list of possible exceptions would also take some amount of uncertainty away from any fair use provisions as then there would be clear situations when the use would be fair, yet still allowing for that provision to grow and change should it need to. How far should the list go will ultimately be up to the legislature and it will surely develop through the courts once unknown or unforeseen uses arise.

Should no fair use provision be enacted, the ALRC has submitted that there should be a right for private and domestic use. The current law does allow for format-shifting, time-shifting and space-shifting, however a more open and technology-neutral approach should be taken. Some submit that "expanding the private and domestic use permitted under copyright law would simply legalize what consumers are already doing". One could easily argue that this is both sensible and would reduce the instances of unnecessary litigation. As said, how people use their legally bought content has changed and attitudes towards the use of your own purchased content should change accordingly, with the law reflecting that change. The ALRC argues that "fair use and fair dealing exceptions with fairness factors considered, are likely to be able to better account for the differences in markets and technologies between types of copyright material and different types of uses", and I would personally agree. A wider fair use provision would not only account for existing uses, but would accommodate future uses better such as cloud computing.

The Future?

To conclude, you have to ask the question, what will be the changes implemented, or whether they will be implemented at all. At this point things are uncertain, but the ALRC's work seems to bode well for the potential changes in copyright law and fair dealing. The final draft of the report due to be published at the end of November this year. Whether Parliament takes the initiative and makes changes to the current legislation will remain to be seen, and we shouldn't expect any changes immediately. Calls for change have been loud and abundant, and should the Australian Parliament not act on this, the nation could be held back when compared to the rest of the world. With the implementation of the NBN in the coming years, this would act as even more of an incentive to amend the law before the nation is set to be able to access the Internet through faster and more reliable means. If the law takes the leap before this, Australia would be fully able to utilize this new avenue and take a step forward in the world of copyright.

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