Government moves to modernise copyright in Australia

(26 August 2017) Australia’s educators, cultural institutions, disability organisations and tech sector welcome the Government’s commitment to modernisation of our copyright system and to ensuring fairer access to content for Australians.

The commitment came as part of the Government’s response to the Productivity Commission’s 2016 Inquiry into Intellectual Property, which was released late on Friday. After considering the issues for 18 months and reviewing more than 900 submissions, the Commission concluded that Australia’s copyright arrangements were “skewed … to the detriment of consumers and intermediate users.” As a result, our laws “lack balance and have been slow to adapt to technological change, imposing costs on the broader community.”

“Copyright law moves very slowly, while the world races past,” said Derek Whitehead, Chair of copyright advocacy group the Australian Digital Alliance. “If you used a VCR to tape a TV show any time before 2006, you were breaking the law – because our copyright system assumes everything is illegal until the Government gets around to making it legal. We can’t continue to wait decades playing catch-up. We need a system that ensures that even as new technologies or behaviours emerge, the law remains fair, as the Productivity Commission recommended.”

The Government has acknowledged these problems in their response, committing to “create a modernised copyright exceptions framework that keeps pace with technological advances and is flexible to adapt to future changes”. They will consult in 2018 on the best way to achieve this.

The Government also supports the Commission’s call to level the playing field for Australian online service providers by expanding our safe harbour scheme, an issue on which they are currently consulting.

“Currently Australian schools, universities, libraries and archives have less legal protection than commercial ISPs providing the same services, and our tech companies can be held liable even when acting in good faith, which their international peers cannot. So these changes are of great importance,” said Ms Coates, the ADA’s Executive Officer. “When these long-awaited reforms go through, companies who want to set up shop in Australia will finally be on equal footing with global industries, rather than being forced offshore.”

Other recommendations from the Commission’s report that the Government has endorsed, and which the ADA applauds, include changes to prevent technologies and contracts from overruling rights under copyright law, and to facilitate the use of orphan works whose authors cannot be found. “This will ensure that Australian consumers, artists, educators and innovators will be able to make the most of our cultural legacy,” said Mr Whitehead.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Government has accepted the Commission’s recommendation to shine a spotlight on Australia’s opaque collecting society system. This commitment recognises the high level of trust placed in collecting societies, which are tasked with ensuring fees paid by the education, government and corporate sectors make it to creators, and the equally high standards of reporting and transparency that this warrants.

“Australia’s system of governance and oversight of these organisations is currently paper thin and lags behind its international peers,” said Ms Coates. “The review by the Department of Communications and the Arts, in consultation with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, which was announced on Friday is a good first step in a much needed update.”

Mr Whitehead agrees. “These steps outlined by the Commission and endorsed today by the Government will move Australia’s copyright system towards global best practice,” he said. “We look forward to working with the Government to implement these commitments and ensure that Australia’s copyright laws are finally fit for the digital age.”

The announcement is here.