Dutch Research Reveals Wide Scope For Copyright Flexibilities In EU Laws

A couple of weeks ago, Techdirt wrote about a surprising initiative by the Netherlands to introduce new flexibilities into its copyright law. Given that leadership from the Dutch government, it’s probably no surprise that a few days later, the Dutch Parliament also showed itself in the political vanguard by voting not to ratify ACTA for the time being.

The full text of the Dutch minister’s speech is now available, and it’s well worth reading for its clear analysis of the problem facing European copyright, and its suggested solution:

The big question, however, is whether copyright law currently provides enough opportunities to allow an effective response to these technological changes and other developments in the future. In my view, this is particularly relevant in the case of the closed list of exceptions to copyright in the European Information Society Directive. These exceptions are designed to allow new products and services to be developed through creative or transformative use of copyrighted work. They also allow copyright to be restricted in the case of work used for educational purposes, in academic research or in news reporting, as well as work used for libraries and archives.

As the minister mentioned in his talk, those exceptions are explored in some depth in a report by Professors Hugenholtz and Senftleben, entitled ‘Fair Use in Europe. In Search of Flexibilities.’ The conclusion gives an idea of just how much scope there is within existing European law to introduce a wide range of copyright exceptions:

As our analysis has demonstrated, the EU copyright acquis [body of law] leaves considerably more room for
flexibilities than its closed list of permitted limitations and exceptions prima facie suggests. In the first place, the enumerated provisions are in many cases categorically worded prototypes rather than precisely circumscribed exceptions, thus leaving the Member States broad margins of implementation, as is confirmed by actual legislative practice in various Member States. In the second place, the EU acquis leaves ample unregulated space with regard to the right of adaptation that has so far remained largely unharmonized.

A Member State desiring to take full advantage of all policy space available under the Information Society Directive, and thus maximize flexibilities available at the EU level, might achieve this by literal transposition of the Directive’s entire catalogue of exception prototypes into national law. In combination with the [Information Society Directive’s] three-step test, this would effectively lead to a semi-open norm almost as flexible as the fair use rule of the United States. For less ambitious Member States seeking to enhance flexibility while keeping its existing structure of limitations and exceptions largely intact, we recommend exploring the policy space left by distinct exception prototypes.

The ability to add all kinds of flexibilities to copyright law without breaching the Information Society Directive is clearly a real boon for EU governments who want to update their legislation for the digital age. But there is another notable advantage to taking this approach, as the authors note:

Member States aspiring to introduce flexible copyright norms are advised to take advantage of the policy space that presently exists in EU law, and not wait until initiatives to introduce flexibilities at the EU level materialize — a process that could easily take ten years. In this way, national models can be developed and tested in practice that may serve as a basis for more flexible future law making at EU level.

The hope there seems to be that forward-thinking countries like the Netherlands might be able to set an example for Europe’s future copyright legislation, and move it towards greater flexibility. A good place to start in that respect would be for the European Parliament to emulate the Dutch politicians and to ditch ACTA, one of whose pernicious effects is to limit the freedom of signatories to modify their own national copyright laws.

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