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New EU copyright legislation gets mixed reactions

Some claim it provides too much access to material at the expense of copyright holders; others say it doesn’t go far enough

by Paula Dupraz-Dobias, special to C&EN
November 7, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 45


Photo of multiple people sitting at tiered tables, some with their hands raised.
Credit: Vincent Kessler/Reuters/Newscom
Members of the European Parliament vote on European Union copyright reforms on Sept. 12 in Strasbourg, France.

The European Parliament voted two months ago to overhaul European Union digital copyright laws in a way that is expected to give researchers—but not necessarily the public—broader access to information.

European Union officials have been discussing changing copyright rules since 2016, when the European Commission presented a first draft of the legislation. Experts agree that existing EU regulations need to be reset for the digital age, just as the EU already acted to protect personal data privacy.

Overall, the legislation that passed on Sept. 12 establishes “balanced and research-friendly rules,” European Union Commissioner Carlos Moedas says in a tweet. But those rules have critics nevertheless, and the European Parliament must still negotiate a final version with other branches of the EU government. A final vote on the legislation, known as the directive on copyright in the digital single market, is expected early next year.

One aspect of the legislation would allow researchers to use text- or data-mining computer programs on material they have legal access to read, if such mining is for nonprofit purposes or in the public interest. EU member states would be able to enact their own laws to extend similar access to companies and individuals.

Another provision in the law, created with news organizations in mind and nicknamed the “link tax,” would allow publishers to claim royalties for the use of snippets of information. For example, a news aggregator would have to pay a royalty to use a headline and short excerpt when linking to an original work.

As passed, the link tax provision is specific to journalistic publications and doesn’t apply to other copyright holders. Academic publishers would like that distinction eliminated and the right to royalties extended to them as well. The distinction is “disappointing, unwarranted and potentially discriminatory,” the International Association of Scientific, Technical & Medical Publishers (STM) said in a statement in 2016, when the directive was first released. C&EN’s publisher, the American Chemical Society, is a member of STM.

STM also warned in the statement that the provisions on text and data mining lack clarity. The group said that “lawful access” to data for mining purposes must include consent of copyright holders. It also claimed that extending the mining allowance to commercial use, should EU member nations choose to do so, “poses a risk to existing well operating and understood scholarly systems.”

Others criticize the legislation from the other side, saying that it conflicts with the EU’s principles of open science and freedom of expression and does not do enough to allow information access.

Restricting text- and data-mining access to researchers only would have “a chilling effect on discoveries in the public interest,” says Julia Reda, a member of the European Parliament from Germany.


“Anyone with legal access to content should be able to use computers to read and analyse that material,” the Association of European Research Libraries (LIBER) says in a statement. Limiting who may mine data “will undermine the European Commission’s broader efforts to support Open Science and Artificial Intelligence. It will also hinder valuable collaborations between universities, businesses and the public sector,” LIBER President Jeannette Frey says.

LIBER is also concerned about provisions regarding uploading of copyrighted material. Right now, the onus is on copyright holders to issue takedown notices after finding that material has been illegally uploaded. The new directive would require platforms such as Google, Facebook, or ResearchGate to preemptively filter content to prevent illegal uploads. “While major platforms such as YouTube are likely to be able to cope with such requirements, the provisions would also arguably apply to many of the activities of educational platforms such as institutional repositories, which simply do not have the resources to meet these new requirements,” LIBER says.

Its misgivings aside, LIBER does see some positives in the current legislation, in particular, allowances for “digital preservation (including cross-border preservation networks) and the mass digitisation of in-copyright but commercially unavailable collections.”

The elected representatives of the European Parliament are now negotiating a final version of the legislation with the Council of the European Union, which comprises government ministers from the 28 member countries, and varies by policy matter, and the European Commission, which is the executive arm of the EU government.

Paula Dupraz-Dobias is a freelance writer based in Switzerland.

UPDATE: This story was originally published on Oct. 22, 2018, and was revised on Nov. 7, 2018, for clarity. 


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