Australian Copyright Reform off to a Good Start for 2016

A bunch of the ADA's friends overseas (including the Electronic Frontiers Foundation, the American Library Association, and Creative Commons) have declared this week to be Copyright Week, an initiative designed to raise awareness of ongoing issues in copyright reform globally.

As such, it seems like a perfect time to highlight some pretty significant things that are happening in copyright reform in Australia in 2016.

The most exciting news over the last few months was the release just before Christmas of the exposure draft of the Copyright Amendment (Disability Access and Other Measures) Bill 2016. This bill proposes a number of changes that would simplify and streamline parts of the Copyright Act, fix a few outdated and confusing provisions, and ensure that everything is in order for us to ratify the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works by Visually Impaired Persons and Persons with Print Disabilities.

The proposed changes are almost all in relation to exceptions for copyright users, including disability groups, schools, libraries and the tech sector, and appear to represent a list of non-controversial, positive reforms the government has probably been looking to implement for a while. The list includes changes that will:

  • Facilitate access to copyright material for people with disabilities - making the disability exceptions simpler and broader to allow more people to access more material more easily;
  • Allow best practice preservation by libraries and archives - taking away some confusing complexities and inconsistencies that make the current provisions problematic, particularly for audiovisual material;
  • Simplify the statutory licence that governs use of copyright material by educational institutions - removing many of the cumbersome administrative requirements prescribed by the Act and instead allowing collecting societies and education institutions to arrange these details themselves;
  • Extend to other online service providers the safe harbours that currently protect ISPs from liability for infringements by their clients - this will mean that schools, libraries and services such as Youtube and Facebook all finally get the same protection in Australia that they receive in overseas jurisdictions such as the US; and
  • Provide a set copyright term for unpublished works and works whose authors are unknown - currently these materials receive perpetual protection under Australian copyright law, leading to the ridiculous circumstance that letters carried by Captain Cook are still covered by copyright and always will be, forever. You can see more detail on these provisions in our previous blog post on them.

Our thoughts on these proposed changes? In summary - we love 'em. A few of them could do with tweaking and there are a couple of places we think the government could have gone further (we'll be telling them this in our submission), but there is no denying that these are the most significant amendments for Australia's copyright users since the Copyright Amendment Act 2006 (which among other things, made it legal to use video recorders in Australia). 

Now, the fact that some good changes are on the horizon doesn't mean that there isn't still a long way to go before Australia has an efficient, effective and properly balanced copyright regime. We're still waiting on a response from the government to the Australian Law Reform Committee's (ALRC) Copyright and the Digital Economy report, which recommended a number of excellent changes including the introduction of a flexible user exception based on the US concept of "fair use." This still remains a major issue for Australian copyright users, with huge numbers of harmless activities undertaken daily by individuals and businesses illegal simply because our Copyright Act isn't flexible enough to accommodate them. We are hoping that the Productivity Commission's ongoing Inquiry into Australia's Intellectual Property Arrangements, which is due to report in August, will provide the government motivation to move on this.

It also looks like the government-commissioned Ernst and Young economic analysis of some of the ALRC recommendations - which was on hold while copyright moved from the Attorney-General's Department to the Department of Communications under Prime Minister Turnbull's new arrangements - is back on. It will be interesting to see where that leads.

But focusing back on the hero of the moment - the copyright amendments we actually have in front of us: the government has asked for comments on the exposure draft by February 12. We'll be providing a favourable response, and we encourage others to as well. If you love these changes as much as we do, let the government know!



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