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EU copyright reform – Baby steps or a big leap into the digital future?

17 December 2015
Lisa Bungeroth

Lisa Bungeroth

Former Policy Manager – Europe, Research and Innovation
Universities UK International



The European Commission has just released its long awaited communication on modernising the EU copyright rules. The good news for research and innovation? For the first time in EU law, an exception to copyright for researchers that want to use text and data mining technologies is proposed – which UUK has been arguing for consistently.

Why does this matter?

Because text and data mining (TDM) presents the future of research. Instead of researching the traditional way of reading article by article, scientists can now get computers to do the work for them – and a lot faster. In the age of big data, where 1.5 million new scholarly articles are produced annually and the volume of biological data is doubling every nine months this matters. Humans are no longer able to read and make sense of information on this scale, but computers are. By using TDM, new knowledge and facts can be derived and sorted much quicker and science is made more efficient. In medical research, for example, the latest articles can be reviewed more systematically so that decision-making regarding which discoveries to follow through to clinical trials is much improved – with real benefits to the health system and patients.


What is the problem?

The vast majority of published research is protected by copyright. Scientists and universities get access to this content by paying subscriptions to the publishing houses. However, legally, scientists are not allowed to use TDM technologies on this material, even though the access to it has been paid for as copyright prohibits this.

So while humans can read the article, the computer cannot. This clearly makes no sense and the UK was the first EU country to introduce an exception in 2014 (the technology-heavy US, Taiwan and South Korea all had one in place already). So UK researchers can mine material they have lawful access to and where the purpose is non-commercial research. The Commission is now following suit, enabling this critical technology to be applicable EU-wide and in research collaborations.

It is the commercial vs. non-commercial distinction – inherently difficult to make in 21st century innovation cycles – that will be the sticking point in the coming months when the Commission gets to work on the actual legislative text: the current proposal seeks to limit the exception to ‘public interest research organisations’. While this will benefit universities, it would not include individuals (think Open and Citizen Science) and SMEs (think tech start-ups at the Old Street roundabout). When these have paid for legal access to content – why should they be denied the legal right to mine that content? Should the right to read not be the right to mine?

The Commission is to be applauded for finally proposing a TDM exception that every Member State will have to implement and that will truly make a difference to European research. But the restriction to a still to be defined ‘public interest’ means that it is not quite the big leap in to the digital future of big data. Yet.

What next?

The Commission will now have to go away and draft the actual legislative proposal, which is expected to be in published in the Spring. This will then be negotiated with the European Parliament and the European Council. UUK and other sector organisations will engage in this process to seek the best possible outcome for research – in particular on the ‘public interest’-definition. What the Commission already has achieved is showing that it does listen to its stakeholders and that Europe is constantly modernising and reforming.

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