Australian Productivity Commission Recommends Fair Use, Shorter Copyright Terms

On April 29, 2016, the Australian Productivity Commission issued a nearly 600 page draft report on Intellectual Property Arrangements recommending a number of positive changes to provide better balance to the intellectual property system, including recommendations on fair use, shorter copyright terms, and specifying that copyright licensing does not override limitations and exceptions for libraries and archives.

In the overview, while the Commission acknowledges the importance of incentivizing creation, the report also notes that

the use of an idea by one party does not reduce its capacity for use by another, and and that ideas provide economic and social value as other parties draw on existing knowledge to create their own.  Since new ideas are a major source of economic growth, any defects in IP arrangements intended to encourage their creation and diffusion can be very costly

[ . . .]

Indeed, overly strong restrictions on diffusion can be so detrimental to innovation that it can undo the benefits of the IP system in the first place . . .

The Commission begins a section entitled “Copy(not)right” by pointing out that “Australia’s copyright arrangements are weighed too heavily in favour of copyright owners, to the detriment of the long-term interests of both consumers and intermediate users.”  Much of the framework emphasizes balance and also recognizes the need for adaptability.

The Commission’s report also points out the importance of erring on the side of weaker IP protections because:

Recent experience would also tend to suggest that it is easier to extend IP rights than narrow them, especially where international agreements are concerned.  Given the asymmetric nature of how policy can be changed, the Commission considers it is appropriate “to err on the side of caution” where there is imperfect information, and deliberately set weaker parameters in the way that rights are assigned, used or enforced.  Extending rights should only occur after careful consideration of how such a change might affect future innovations, whether IP rights are the best way to drive the desired outcome, and how it might affect the greater number of consumers relative to producers of IP.

Ultimately, “the current Copyright Act is weighted too heavily in favor of copyright owners, to the detriment of the long-term interests of users.”

Fair Use

The Commission examines fair use and fair dealing exceptions and explains that Australia’s fair dealing exception provides a closed list of uses.  The US fair use approach, by contrast, relies on factors to determine whether the exception applies.  Thus, “In Australia, legislative change is required to expand the categories of use deemed to be fair.  In contrast, US courts have latitude to determine if, on the facts, a new use of copyright material is fair.  This allows the exception to be flexible and adaptive over time.”

The draft report includes a illustrative list of uses considered to be fair use in the US which would require a license in Australia, as it is not permitted by the current fair dealing provision.  These uses include: an internet search engine’s publication of thumbnail images in search results; an author’s quotation of unpublished letters in a biography; an artist’s collage using images from a photography book; a searchable database of TV clips; the use of scenes from a film for a biographical film about the lead actor; text and data mining, among others.

The Commission rejects the argument that fair use is too uncertain and therefore should not be adopted:

In the Commission’s view, legal uncertainty is not a compelling reason to eschew a fair use exception in Australia, nor is legal certainty desirable in and of itself.  Courts interpret the application of legislative principles to new cases all the time, updating case law when the circumstances warrant it.  To say otherwise would be to argue that all laws should be prescriptive — a doctrine that is inconsistent with many laws across all social and economic arenas, and completely inimical to the common law.  In addition, even under a fair use regime it is possible to specify a non-exhaustive list of illustrative purposes which provides strong guidance to parties.

Additionally, the Commission points out that there are similarities between the US’ fair use factors and the factors within Australia’s current fair dealing exception for research or study and that fair use may not be as uncertain as suggested.  The report points out that, while not binding, Australia could also look to US court opinions for guidance on fair use.

In 2014, the Australia Law Reform Commission recommended inclusion of a fair use provision with illustrative examples including those found in the US fair use statutes as well as parody or satire; professional advice; quotation; non-commercial private use; incidental or technical use; library or archive use; and access for people with disabilities.  The Productivity Commission states that “the ALRC’s recommendation on fair use represents the minimum level of change the Australian Government should pursue” and recommends expansion of a fair use provision to apply to orphan works and out-of-commerce works (meaning that these would be included in the non-exhaustive illustrative list of purposes).

Explaining the problem of orphan works, the Commission states that it “is not aware of any country that has fully resolved the issue of orphan and unavailable works” then examines the three approaches others are considering including: requiring a statutory license, creating an exception for the use of orphan works (such as the EU directive) and limitations on damages and remedies (proposed by the US Copyright Office).  The draft report concludes:

in the case of orphan and out-of-commerce works, creators are not actively exploiting their creation in order to generate an economic return.  Proposals to create licensing schemes, whereby consumers can pay to access such works, is one approach to unlocking their value, but likely represents a windfall gain to producers.  The Commission considers it unlikely that a creator, prior to investing the time and effort in a new work, does so on the basis that their work will have an initial commercial life, a period ‘out of the market’, and a subsequent revival perhaps decades down the track.  While this does occur for many works, it is largely by happenstance rather than design.

The Commission recommends that, “At its heart, Australia’s exception for fair use should allow all uses of copyright material that do not materially reduce a rights holder’s commercial exploitation of their work at the time of use.”

Copyright Term

The Commission’s report points out that a copyright term of life of the author plus 70 years is excessive.  While it acknowledges that Australia is bound to its long copyright terms as a result of trade agreements, it recommends international negotiations to lower the term.  The Commission notes:

An effective and efficient copyright system sets term at a level that encourages creation without unduly constraining access to creative works.  Since it is not possible to define terms specific to each given work, an “optimal” term is a period that, on average, creates reasonable incentives for creation while avoiding the consumer losses associated with exclusivity.  The situation is conceptually similar to that apply to patents.  Australia’s copyright term provides protection for the author’s life plus 70 years . . . Providing financial incentives so far into the future has little influence on today’s decision to produce.  For example, the addition of twenty years of protection many years in the future, such as occurred when Australia increased term from life plus 50 years to life plus 70 years . . . only increases revenue by 0.33per cent.  Such a small increase in revenue “offers at most a very small additional incentive for an economically minded author of a new work.” (citations omitted)

The Commission also reports that “evidence suggests the vast majority of works do not make commercial returns beyond their first couple of years on the market” and that the average commercial life of music is 2-5 years, for literary works 1.4-5 years, for visual artistic works 2 years, and for film 3.3-6 years.

In addition to the financial costs of copyright term extension in which consumers pay higher prices for a longer period of time, the report also acknowledges other costs such as orphan works.

Ultimately, the Commission finds that “While hard to pinpoint an optimal copyright term, a more reasonable estimate would be closer to 15 to 25 years after creation; considerably less than 70 years after death.”  The Commission acknowledges, however, that “Australia has no unilateral capacity to alter copyright terms, but can negotiate internationally to lower the copyright term” and “the Commission considers that there are strong grounds ofr Australia to work with other countries to attempt, over the long term, to achieve a system that gives greater recognition to consumer interests.”

Relationship Between Contracts and Limitations and Exceptions

The Commission examines the Australian Law Reform Commission’s 2014 recommendation that would prevent copyright licenses from relying on limitations and exceptions and concludes:

exceptions play an important role in balancing the interests of copyright producers and users.  Given the evidence presented by the Australian Libraries Copyright Committee, the Council of Australian University Libraries and National and State Libraries Australasia, the problems appear to mainly relate to libraries and archives, rather than other users.  Given this, the Commission considers that copyright license in the digital world should maintain the copyright exceptions for libraries and archives.

Because “It is less clear license conditions for digital content are undermining consumers’ ability to use Australia’s current copyright exceptions,” the Commission requests more information on this issue beyond the impact on libraries and archives.

Parallel Importation

The Commission also recommends repeal of Australia’s parallel importation restrictions on books and that the reform take effect no later than the end of 2017.

Trade Agreements

The draft report points out some of the harms of increasing intellectual property rights in trade agreements.  For example, with respect to copyright term extension implemented as a result of the Australia-US Free Trade Agreement, the estimated cost to Australia was $88 million per year.  The report points out that “A similar obligation to New Zealand as a result of the Trans-Pacific Partnership was estimated to cost $55 million per year.”

Another key point from the report was that “Multilateral and bilateral trade agreements are the primary determinant of Australia’s IP arrangements.  These agreements substantially constrain domestic IP policy flexibility.”

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