Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Book Review: Digital Copyright

Stuart Hannabuss looks at an interesting Nile cruise of a book about intellectual property.

The second edition of Digital Copyright is the print-book counterpart of the original e-book and, as such, will sell particularly well to libraries where training (and self-updating) is taken seriously and to educational establishments where people are trained for 'the profession' (this is so hybrid now that perhaps no one book on information law can satisfy everyone - think of electronic communications law, Internet law, computing law, and the like, and specialist authors like Ian Lloyd on IT law). If, then, such books do well (if they do) and distil complex information into a small compass (if they do), what do they offer? Pedley starts at the beginning with how digital has and has not changed copyright principles and practice. 'Is digital different?' is a good place to start. His focus is the UK only, even though EU directives and some international cases intervene at critical points.

For many readers, I think, the scope and focus of the book will be entirely clear - 'digital' highlights three things - the digital or electronic dimension of copyright, the work going on in digital rights management (including electronic repositories and Open Archive, though these are not really explored, perhaps matters readers would best pursue for themselves), and wider ramifications for anyone (not just the information professional) dealing with digital material. In the latter regard I would have ideally liked more on knowledge managers and intellectual capital, but you can't have everything in a short book.

The content of the book is sound and reliable - Web sites and deep-linking, e-books and databases, screen-shots and images, digital rights management (DRM), technical protection measures and authentication, 'orphaned' works (difficult to attribute to a known owner), with scoop-up chapters on permitted acts, educational establishments, and authors' rights. Useful concluding points, too, on copyright and work made during the course of employment (a large beast caught by the tail, if anything is here) and Crown copyright (a topic of particular resonance in the UK).

Some really useful features here: like citing key relevant law, quoting sections from this law, also raising some of the practical questions (say about copyright clearance) likely to come up from day to day. The book is clearly sectioned and easy to navigate. Readers keen to follow things up further can subscribe to Pedley's 'Keeping Within the Law' subscription service [1]. Pedley himself works at The Economist Intelligence Unit and has participated in numerous panels and forums on IPR in recent years.

No matter how complex a topic is, it can always be packaged small. This adage seems more suited to marketing than information practitioners - the latter tend to want all the detail - but it has a lot of truth when we ask whether being small means being simple (and this can be bad) or being distilled (and this is usually good). Then there are pragmatic reasons: books for professionals need to be clear, well-organised, and easy to read since the boredom threshold of the proverbial busy manager is no higher than most. This work demonstrates that complex content can be concisely expressed by an author who knows how people learn, shows a distinct empathy for his readers and provides them with many ladders on the snakes-and-ladders board of professional reading. That, in a nutshell, is Digital Copyright.

At the risk of spawning metaphors uncontrollably, the second edition of this well-known guide (the first came out as an e-book from Facet in 2005) is a Nile cruise of a book. It is finite (indeed short) but packed with things of interest, things you want to see and know something about, to say you've actually been there. Digital or electronic (the terms seem to be used interchangeably now) have both shaped intellectual property rights (IPR) and been shaped by them. By definition, the field is international and cross-jurisdictional; professional (think of DRM and of fair dealing for prescribed libraries); and popular/populist (think of online music, email and podcasting); clear-cut (copyright subsists online); and ambivalent (what about transient and unattributable copy, what about droit de suite, what about liability and indemnification?).

Maintaining the travel metaphor a moment, where does this journey take us? Like Pedley's other books, such as Essential Law for Information Professionals (Facet, second edition, 2006), their distinctive achievement is that of distilling what readers want to know, and come to realise they need to know, at a point in time. They are snapshots, pencil sketches, quick and reliable guides to the terrain. What that they are not are road maps; something the bevy of books on law for library and information professionals has yet fully to attain, even though those works are going in the right direction.

Law is something you can describe bibliographically - think of sources of law - and there have been books on that, and legal librarians know how to do that rather well. That said, for the ideal law books for librarians, written say in Utopia, law comes into being in interesting ways and needs to be implemented and interpreted, and this level of interpretation is needed as well. For instance, the interpretation of the licence or contract, the cross-over between moral and economic rights, common carrier or editorial responsibility on an intranet. As a result, knowing the law is just the start, an early stage of that river journey, a quick look at heritage sites on the bank. How this interpretive process continues, however; how far legal definitions and language are defined; how far precedent understood; and pragmatic contextualisation (eg does the law actually work in a particular context?) are more advanced matters.

Many of the books for library and information practitioners in this field work well up to a point - in presenting applicable law (in this case key acts and regulations, directives and cases), in alerting readers to issues like compliance, technological circumvention, interoperability and decompilation, whether Internet content is a broadcast, getting clearance for digital photographs (your own and those of other people). Yet many of them, equally, take you so far - as in this book on contracts with a nice tour d'horizon of ownership/leasing and model licences and creative commons and open access - without interpreting them fully in context. The relationship between contract and copyright law alone justifies further study.

This is not a criticism : it indicates what books like this are for and what they're doing - telling people about things, alerting them to watch out for them - rather than providing a master-class in, say, interpreting digital licences. Durrant's book on Negotiating Licences for Digital Resources [2] takes us a little further there, and sources like the JISC Legal Information Service news [3] can be followed up. Clearly Pedley's own book points the way. It is friendly guide suggesting that a trip ashore to look at this tomb (read, say, legal deposit) or that temple (read, say, sui generis database rights) would be well worthwhile. This also indicates the chosen level and role of such books : this one keeps its eye closely on digital issues (including digital rights management) and sets out to provide an eclectic (in a good sense) gloss on the ways in which digital managers need a working overview of copyright (it is mainly that here, though a wider reach takes us into patent, advertising, and liability law as well), and copyright 'wonks' can see at a glance how IPR applies in digital library work.

On the other hand, some things do not appear in this work in any substantial way: data protection and privacy, freedom of information law, trade marks and domain names, patents and genetics, and digital legal dimensions of archives and records management, where once again helpful material exists elsewhere. However, observing our tourism metaphor, we are, after all, only visiting Luxor and the Pyramids, not the source of the Nile.

With his experience of teaching law to information practitioners, Pedley knows how to mediate the ideas clearly. This is why, then, we get a distillation rather than an over-simplification, and at the same time a guide that never pretends to know it all. Digital Copyright has the gift of keeping to the point, giving readers an idea of what they need to know, and recommending ways of getting into the detail. 'Good of its kind' and 'glad it exists' would be two compliments I'd pay this book, and I believe those busy managers and digital newbies would agree. After all, that's who the book is for.

One last point (and all reviewers note): for this book, and others like it, to address all the issues it could and should, a step-change is needed. Since we've had more than enough descriptive explanations of why law matters to practitioners, we now need formal and direct legal interpretation and analysis, with case studies. Even though Pedley points out he is not a lawyer, and we all know that most of his readers will not be either, the field now needs to navigate to the levels of legal discussion we encounter when lawyers deal with information issues. Pointers already exist: in legal work on computer software and patents; ISP liability and defamation; as well as contracts and licensing - all suitable directions for the future, given an appropriate ship's crew. Good though legal books for library and information practitioners have been so far, there always comes a point where authors hand over intellectually to the law and lawyers, of necessity backing modestly away from the hard-edged legal implications of a lot of the points they raise.


  1. Paul Pedley's 'Keeping Within the Law' subscription service, a daily blog, news, in-depth reports, newsletters and so forth, aimed at information suppliers, professionals and providers http://www.kwtl.co.uk/
  2. Fiona Durrant, Negotiating Licences for Digital Resources, Facet, 2006; 168pp; paperback; 978-1-85604-586-5; £39.95
  3. JISC Legal Information Service news http://www.jisclegal.ac.uk/news.htm

Author Details

Dr Stuart Hannabuss
Department of Law
Aberdeen Business School,
and Research Fellow
Gray's School of Art

Email: s.hannabuss@rgu.ac.uk

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