The Business Secretary, Vince Cable has been active again -- announcing proposed changes to allow more "fair use" of copyright works.

The changes, set out in a report from the UK IPO, "Modernising Copyright: a modern, robust and flexible framework", on which the IPO has already consulted, will permit more extensive use of copyright works without adversely affecting copyright owners. Some key elements:

  • Home users will be permitted to store on multiple media/devices -- but not to share their copies with others (even in their family);
  • Educational use will be extended to more work types and permitted to education more generally rather than just designated educational establishments -- and there will be significantly increased freedom for digital use of content in education, including provision over distance learning programmes
  • Use for research in non-commercial data mining and similar activities (as well as private study) will not infringe, widening scope for exploring information stored in copyright works -- but whether the non-commercial restriction will be wide enough to permit practical research is an open question still;
  • The role of the Secretary of State in opening up opportunities where copyright owners use DRM or other technological protection means to prevent these activities, has been re-emphasised, as has the opportunity for owners to take advantage of this by offering "DRM lite" at a higher price.
  • Several other changes are proposed, including making it easier to modify and adapt copyright works for use by disabled people.

Small beer perhaps, but there is not all that much the UK Government can do when one takes into account its commitments under international conventions, and there are some significant opportunities here. Some comments:

  • Media shifting for private users will make many things private users already do legal -- but there will probably be lots more things that private users feel are fair game which will still not be fair use.
  • The widening exceptions for educational use will help wider education - by museums and non-conventional education establishments; and remove some irritating idiosyncrasies which will make it easier to produce more exciting teaching materials -- but, as more educational institutions look to monetise their digital teaching opportunities, there will (not surprisingly) be significant obstacles to selling their teaching materials;
  • Opportunities for digital mining for non-commercial research could open up significant avenues of research, and researchers could be taking account of this now for future grant applications for academic research -- but what happens if they then want to make commercial use of the results? Until it is clear what the boundary between non-commercial and commercial is, can one be sure that the rsults of the reseach can be used?
  • Users of DRM -- digital rights management or other technological copy protection measures, should look at the opportunities for producing separate DRM protected and DRM relaxed products to take advantage of what happens when users would like a product which they can media shift, or annotate for disabled people, or use in a wider educational context. And DRM appliers can probably take advantage of this now, even while there is uncertainty as to how the legislation may work out.

We look forward to seeing and commenting on the detailed proposals.