Why and how Australia is fixing digital preservation rules

This week is Born Digital 2016, a week in which Australia's library community raises awareness of the importance of preserving digital content for the public good and as a record of 21st century history.

The birth of the internet 25 years ago has enabled a huge swell of creation, with more creative material - from tweets to vlogs to serious-works-of-great-art - born and published every day than our ancestors would see in a lifetime. But all this digital-born material is vulnerable in a way that analogue materials are not, leading to the risk of a digital dark age. As Sarah Slade from the State Library of Victoria points out "There are 1000-year-old books that can still be easily read but how many of your 25-year-old floppy discs can you still use? Libraries take this very seriously and are working hard to ensure this information doesn’t disappear, but it is much a social issue as an institutional one – everyone must think about their information and what they are doing to make sure it isn’t lost.”  

Unfortunately, Australia's copyright laws aren't helping the situation.

Currently most libraries and archives are only able to make preservation copies of a published work in their collection AFTER the work has deteriorated or been lost. Even then, they are only able to make one copy, and only if a replacement version isn't available. You can ask all kinds of philosophical and practical questions about when a work has "deteriorated" (almost immediately) and whether buying a replacement version is equivalent to preserving the copy you have (it isn't). But the practical outcome of this rather ludicrous law is that Australian libraries cannot confidently undertake best practice preservation of their collections. It certainly doesn't allow multiple copies, in multiple formats, at multiple sites, as is recommended by UNESCO.

The situation is only made more dire by the launch of digital legal deposit at the federal level earlier this year (a very slow but exciting piece of copyright reform, by the way). While at the moment this only extends to the National Library's collection, is an indicator of the direction that collections in Australia are going - towards bits and bytes rather than pieces of paper. Questions about deterioration and versioning are even harder for electronic works which live in technology specific formats and can be updated several times a day. And it just isn't clear what libraries can do to keep these materials working and accessible.

But thankfully a solution is already at hand. Just before Christmas late last year, the government released an exposure draft of the Copyright Amendment (Disability Access and Other Measures) Bill 2016. This bill proposes a number of changes that would simplify and streamline parts of the Copyright Act, fix a few outdated and confusing provisions, and ensure that everything is in order for us to ratify the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works by Visually Impaired Persons and Persons with Print Disabilities. It was loudly applauded by Australia's cultural, educational, technology and disability sectors.

Included in its small but important collection of amendments is a new preservation exception that will replace a mess of out-of-date, unworkable provisions with a simple new system which will help librarians to do their jobs in the digital age. The new provisions are broad and simple and apply in the same way to materials in any format. They also have no restrictions on the number of copies that can be made or the formats they can be made in. Once the changes are passed, libraries will be able to do everything they need "for the purpose of preserving the collection" without having to worry about copyright.

Unfortunately the Bill and its positive reforms got caught behind the various bits of legislative wrangling and the Federal election that have dominated politics for most of this year. So it hasn't been tabled yet. But the Minister for Communications has promised that it will be introduced at the start of the next term of Parliament. The Marrakesh Treaty, which inspired the bill in the first place, is set to come into force on 30 September, so it would be great to see the Bill tabled by then.

Fingers crossed that by the time we get to Born Digital 2017, copyright law will no longer pose a danger to the preservation of our national collections.

Image: Zapped CD, Wikimedia



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