Australia's ongoing debate over the introduction of a new fair use right took a turn last week when Wikipedia joined the fray. The world's largest online encyclopedia now displays a banner to its Australian users encouraging them to support a joint campaign of Australia's major digital rights groups to modernize its dated copyright law by legalizing the fair use of copyright works.
As the campaign points out, the adoption of fair use would not harm copyright owners, but would simply authorize many everyday uses of copyright material that are currently technically infringing, such as forwarding emails, backing up movies, and sharing memes or mash-ups. That's one reason why Australia's Productivity Commission recommended the adoption of fair use as an improvement to Australia's patchwork of technologically-specific exceptions, such as a rule that allows format shifting from VHS tapes, but not from DVDs.
Libraries and educators would also benefit. Perversely, under current Australian copyright law, educational institutions are required to pay royalties for copying even freely-available online materials such as publicly accessible webpages for use by students. The adoption of fair use could see an end to such anomalies, with flow-on benefits across Australian society.
Why has Wikipedia, which is hosted in the U.S., jumped into this debate? Because the online encyclopedia provides an excellent example of the opportunity that the fair use doctrine creates for valuable information to be shared, without damaging the interests of creators. For example, in an article on Australian band Crowded House, you can hear a few bars of some of their most well-known tracks, and in a page about Aboriginal artist Albert Namatjira, a small representation of his art can be found.
Would anyone wishing to listen to Crowded House forgo purchasing their album because they can hear a few seconds of the same music on Wikipedia? Of course not, and that's one of the factors that make Wikipedia's partial reproduction of their music fair. But because Australia lacks a fair use right, Wikipedia could not be hosted in Australia without risking being found to infringe copyright. It's high time for this to change, for the sake of Australian users, creators, and innovators alike.
Other countries around the world are recognizing the benefits of fair use. South Africa is currently proposing to introduce a new fair use right into its own copyright law, adding to a growing list of countries that have done the same, including Israel, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea.
Australians can join this growing movement and support the campaign for fair copyright by emailing their politicians, or by sharing the #faircopyrightoz hashtag on social media.