The Authors' Take - The purpose of copyright

The purpose of copyright 

by Simone Schroff

Digital technology has redefined how copyright works are created, distributed and consumed, changing the expectations of creators, commercial intermediaries and users alike. In this environment, clarity about what copyright aims to achieve is crucial to strike a viable bargain between the different groups.

The purpose of copyright has come under intense and sustained scrutiny over the last two decades. Copyright law is traditionally seen as a tool to protect the author, reward creators and investors and ensure societal benefit. While the debates about the right balance are wide-ranging and sometimes highly contentious, any consensus has proven elusive. Stakeholder dissatisfaction and claims of policy failure are increasingly common.

This article argues that the stagnating debates show that the traditional copyright theories do not provide sufficient guidance. Instead, reforms need to be reassessed based on what policy makers actually try to achieve. Using conventional discourse analysis on empirical EU policy evidence, the cross- institutional minimum consensus on what copyright aims to achieve is explored.

The results show how EU copyright policy differs from the theoretical and member state level debates. In particular, all aspects of EU copyright are shaped by the Single European Market: technological change brings economic benefits and copyright is a tool to harness them. As a result, copyright is considered a property right and all interference with it needs be kept to a minimum while competition law provides the safety net. The findings also show that while the narrative of harm to creators mobilises public opinion, reform proposals are more likely to succeed if they treat technological innovation as an economic opportunity rather than a threat.