Of all the topics related to the EU referendum and (most notably immigration and the wider economy) the issue of copyright law reform might seem a relatively low priority. However copyright is hugely important to the way teaching and research is carried out in a digital environment and the current legal system creates barriers to good practice.
This is because despite reforms in 2001 Europe still has a patchwork of copyright laws in which each country is able to create its own local legislation covering activities allowed for teaching and research. These activities range from the everyday, like demonstrating or sharing learning materials, to the use of cutting edge technology like text and data mining.
The European Commission are planning on making changes to the law which may further harmonise teaching and research ‘exceptions’ (things you can do with copyright content without the rights holder’s permission), which could have a major impact on way universities operate across Europe.
As David Radlett says it is unclear exactly what the impact of leaving the EU would be on UK laws, although the general impact of a British exit from Europe on intellectual property laws may be more problematic than it is helpful. However the current process of copyright harmonisation between the UK and the rest of Europe would certainly not continue in its current form. In the event of an exit the question would be what types of trade deals the UK would be able to negotiate and the effect that these would have on our copyright laws. The likelihood is that NGOs and other bodies who advocate on behalf of education and research would be excluded from these agreements in favour of commercial organisations.
From the educator’s perspective, greater harmonisation of European laws is essential to provide clarity on what teachers and researchers are able to do, particularly for institutions with students in different European countries.
Copyright for Creativity (of which UUK is a signatory) provides a good overview of the importance of copyright reform for the education, research and library community. Similarly the University of Kent is a signatory to LACA’s (Library and Archives Copyright Alliance) London Manifesto which calls for fair copyright reform relating to libraries and archives in Europe.
In summary then, copyright reform in Europe is an important step towards simplifying access to knowledge and innovation. However in the event of a British exit the UK is unlikely to have the same level of influence over its outcome and there is a risk that this will prolong the current, confusing and frustrating copyright system which will hamper cross-border research and teaching initiatives.