Alongside partners in the heritage, research and education space, IFLA has issued a letter to the South African Parliament committee responsible for the progress of the country’s Copyright Amendment Bill, calling for rapid passage into law of this long-overdue piece of legislation.

For over ten years, work has been taking place in South Africa to deliver on a reform to its apartheid-era copyright rules. While triggered by scandals around the treatment of artists by collecting societies, the situation of libraries has also been a central issue, recognising the need to update rules which were already 40 years old.

The reform has become necessary due to the major evolutions in the way that libraries support users to realise their rights of access to culture, education and research, and in particular, possibilities to use and give access to works in digital formats.

In particular, the reform proposes that South Africa joins the growing list of countries globally which are adopting more flexible, principles-based provisions around exceptions to copyright, known in the US as ‘fair use’. This represents a tried and tested way of upholding the rights and interests of libraries and their users, without undermining the ability of creators and rightholders to earn a fair return on their work.

It also contains valuable new provisions specifically for libraries, complemented by fair use, which allow for greater clarity in how libraries, for example, can ensure the preservation of digital content.

The Copyright Amendment Bill has, however, progressed slowly, faced by strongĀ  opposition, leading to a frustrating delay when the text agreed by the Parliament was returned by the President on a technicality. This has meant, for example, that South Africa’s libraries were not able to benefit from modern legislation when COVID-19 struck, or to use it to ensure digital preservation before fire destroyed the Jager Library at the University of Cape Town. Similarly, South Africa’s government has been condemned in the courts for failing to uphold the rights of persons with disabilities, another questions which would have been resolved by the law.

In particular, there has been very strong opposition, including extensive misrepresentation of the contents of the Bill and of wider international law by rightholders, as well as threats of legal action against the country.

Now, however, we hope that following further rounds of debate and consultation, including in all of South Africa’s Provinces, it is time for the country to join the club of those adopting modern and flexible copyright laws, and empowering their libraries to empower their populations.