Stuck in the Middle – Beyond Big Content vs Big Tech in the Copyright Debate

Boxing Poster, 1961

Source: Heritage Auctions (public domain)*

Today’s debates on copyright reform often look like the latest installment of the grand battle between Big Content and Big Tech.


In the one corner, Big Content – the publishers, record companies and film studios, including a number of multi-billion dollar firms – have seen their traditional distribution channels disrupted by the coming of the Internet. They have been forced into fast and sometimes painful changes in business models in order to stay afloat.


In the other, Big Tech – the firms that have taken advantage of network effects to develop huge platforms which have come to dominate the way we access culture and ideas. They have allowed more people, more easily than ever before to enjoy and benefit from ideas and culture. Some, in doing so, have grown very rich.


Clearly not all actors on either side are ‘big’. On the tech side, beyond the obvious Googles and Amazons, there are countless tech start-ups and innovators, on both sides of the Atlantic, trying to hold their own in a sector marked by a few huge players. And on the content side, there are many new entrants or small operations, as keen to draw attention to their work in order to build future audiences as to earn revenue now.


Nonetheless, the representatives of Big Content industries call for tighter copyright protections, and tougher enforcement measures to match, in order to hold their own against Big Tech. Big Tech’s representatives in turn argue that they are paying out a fair proportion of their income, and that stricter copyright will simply reduce access.


Simplify at Your Peril

In reducing discussions about copyright to a struggle between content and tech, there is a risk of overlooking the role and needs of libraries and other cultural heritage institutions. They also allow citizens to access copyrighted works (which of course they have paid for, or otherwise legally acquired), but do so on a non-commercial basis.


Placed in communities, education and research institutions, or mandated to carry out archiving activities, they make use of limits on the powers given to rightholders to carry out public interest missions. Activities such as lending, story-time for children, making copies of articles for personal research, or preservation, would be much harder, if not impossible, without these exceptions.


Less well funded, and – stereotypes noted – perhaps less noisy than other players in copyright reforms, they are the ones who risk being forgotten as politicians are asked to pick sides in the clash between Big Content and Big Tech. They cannot take out full-page adverts in papers, lobby day-in-day-out, or sponsor glamourous research papers. Yet they are the ones likely to be hurt by clumsy solutions.


In the European case, imposing an obligation on platforms to filter content may well change the activities of commercial players, but it could also destroy open access repositories. Obliging Google News to pay to show snippets of news stories may earn a few euros for newspapers, but it could also prevent libraries from promoting media and information literacy. Requiring researchers to destroy structured datasets used for text and data mining is (dubiously) presented as a means to fight piracy, but it also runs completely contrary to scientific good practice and the need to be able to reproduce the results of experiments.


Decision-makers will need to tread carefully and avoid clumsy solutions that assume that that Big Tech and Big Content are the only player in the room. Otherwise, they risk  if they are not to damage or destroy the potential of libraries and cultural heritage institutions to serve the public interest.


This would be a tragedy, as it is libraries and cultural heritage institutions which are at the heart of creating the writers and readers of tomorrow, from story-telling after school to cutting edge research data management. In the EU, and elsewhere, decision-makers need to be careful to protect this function.


To find out more about IFLA’s work on copyright reform for libraries, see the latest news from the Copyright and other Legal Matters Advisory Committee.

* Poster taken from:

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