'Right to parody' campaigners win battle after nine-year effort to modernise copyright law

A change in UK copyright law to allow the ‘right to parody’ has been given the go ahead after a nine-year campaign.

Clip: The Hitler Downfall movie has been endlessly parodied

The House of Lords this week voted in support of changes that loosen regulations on changing copyrighted material for ‘caricature, parody and pastiche’, and the move has been welcomed by campaigners in the Open Rights Group, which has been calling for changes to ‘outdated’ copyright law.

The boom in video through platforms such as YouTube and Vine have fuelled the creation of viral parodies – such as the Hitler Downfall clips – which have left UK-based creators technically in breach of the law.

Under the ‘fair dealing exception’, individuals will no longer be breaking copyright law when creating parody material, although there are still rules in place to protect copyrighted material.

“This is part of a suite of exceptions designed to modernise copyright law,” media lawyer Steve Kunciewicz told The Drum. “It’s certainly a move towards liberalising the copyright system.

“It’s not a huge reform, and there are lots of complaints in the industry about what this could do, but the law is still pretty much unchanged and there will need to be a value judgement as to what is fair dealing in this new copyright exception, but it’s a step forward.

“It’s moving away from this situation where all rights are reserved. This is the stranglehold being loosened a little bit. It’s a minor change, but it’s an important one.”

However, Kuncewicz added that artists and copyright owners’ concerns were fuelled by a lack of clarity on what the change will mean in practice and fears that people will be less concerned about “ripping off” other people’s work.

“It’s the artists who’ll be angry about it,” he said. “If any artists have to fight a case it will be in the public gaze and potentially be seen as stamping down on people who are doing what they think are perfectly fair parodies.

“What it might also do is create confusion because it’s still not particularly clear. I think we’ve probably got a way to go before we get any kind of real definition of how this is going to work, until we get some cases through it’s very much up for grabs.

“The idea is that it’s meant to help culture and it’s meant to allow people to create things like parodies without threat of litigation,” he went on. “It’s a fairly small change in relation to the wording of the statute, but it could be a real big change if it emboldens people to rip off work where they never did previously.”

During a debate on the change, Baroness Neville-Rolfe said on behalf of the government that “grass-roots creativity” faced being stifled by legal action under existing copyright legislation. She added that parody was a traditional route for campaigners to “highlight questionable business practice” and they needed more protection from legal threats.

“Online creative sites, which are about building grass-roots creativity, have told us that they have encountered sometimes insurmountable issues with lawyers and copyright owners over the years,” she said.

“One of the ways that campaigners are able to highlight questionable business practice is by parodying a company’s own brand or slogans. Yet as the law stands, to do so carries considerable risk of legal action and with it the risk of campaign materials being blocked from publication. The Government believe it is time to change the law.

“The proposed change enjoys wide support: from British broadcasters, production companies, creators and performers; from campaigning groups; and from centres of learning, as the ability to re-edit copyright works in new and experimental ways is an important learning exercise for building creative skills.”

In a statement, the Open Right Group said: “Like many industry lobby groups, the copyright lobby groups confuse profits and control with their strategic interests.

“A public interest copyright policy serves everyone's interests, by balancing the rights of copyright holders to profit from their work with the rights of citizens to freedom of expression and access to information and culture.

“These exceptions are a step towards a system that reflects that, and we should be proud that we helped copyright move in the right direction.”

The changes to legislation will also mean that copying CDs to iPod and similar copying or transferring of material between formats will no longer be illegal.

The changes come into effect on 1 October.

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