Govt ‘head in the sand’ on copyright reform

Denham Sadler
National Affairs Editor

Australia’s national startup body has slammed the government for its “head in the sand” approach to tech policy after it failed to act on a series of recommendations to reform copyright laws.

StartupAUS hit out at the government this week after the Coalition “finalised” the government’s response to a Productivity Commission report into copyright reforms without implementing any of the recommendations relating to tech companies.

Communications minister Paul Fletcher last week announced new copyright reforms to “better support the digital environment”, including a limited liability scheme for the use of orphan works and a fair dealing exception for non-commercial quotation by cultural or educational institutions and governments.

The proposed reforms mark the end of the government’s response to the Productivity Commission’s report, despite a number of key recommendations still unaddressed.

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These specifically relate to copyright reforms that the startup and tech sectors have campaigned on for several years, including the extension of the safe harbour scheme to online platforms and a new fair use scheme.

This is despite the government agreeing in principle to most of the Productivity Commission’s recommendations.

The failure to properly reform Australia’s copyright laws puts local firms at a disadvantage in global markets, StartupAUS chief executive Alex McCauley said.

“This is deeply disappointing for Australia’s tech sector, and limits Australia’s capacity to build businesses in some of the most high-value emerging technologies in the world,” Mr McCauley said.

“The Productivity Commission specifically recommended reform to modernise copyright laws to allow exceptions in these circumstances. Clearly the government knows about these big gaps, but they’ve chosen to ignore them.”

The tech sector has been pushing for the extension of the safe harbour scheme, which currently protects telcos and ISPs from legal action over copyright infringing content hosted on their platforms with some conditions, to online platforms, such as Australian tech company RedBubble.

This was recommended by the Productivity Commission, and the government had unveiled plans to introduce the necessary legislation recently but backed away from the plan after intense lobbying from copyright owners.

There has also been a widespread push for a new fair use scheme to be introduced, allowing an exemption from copyright infringement if the use of the content is deemed to be “fair”.

This would apply to the likes of Google and Wikipedia, with proponents for the scheme commonly saying that these companies could not be founded in Australia under the current IP regime.

The introduction of such a scheme would return fairness to innovative firms, universities and schools, the Productivity Commission said in its 2016 report.

“Fair use would allow Australia’s copyright arrangements to adapt to new circumstances, technologies and uses over time. The opportunities Australian businesses and consumers forgo because of the current inflexible exceptions are much more extensive,” the report said.

The government has instead opted to extend the current fair dealing exception, and only for non-commercial purposes.

The current copyright regime in Australia leaves tech companies at risk of being sued, Mr McCauley said. He pointed to a company using large datasets to develop machine learning and artificial intelligence products that currently runs “significant risk” of being sued for copyright infringement, or a company copying digital files to enable it to provide cloud storage, which could also be sued.

“Firms and entrepreneurs in those areas will simply see Australia as a non-starter,” Mr McCauley said.

The government’s approach to copyright reform typifies its general attitude to tech-related policies, Mr McCauley said.

“Unfortunately, this isn’t a one-off. There has been a worrying pattern of behaviour over the last few years in which important reforms designed to uplift Australia’s capacity to take advantage of new technologies have been thrown into the ‘too hard’ basket,” he said.

“This head in the sand approach limits our ability to build world-class tech firms. At a time when we’re looking for low-cost, high-impact ways to drive jobs growth and innovation, refusing to take action to get these basic building blocks right just doesn’t make any sense.”

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