The British Library has called for a "serious updating" of current copyright law to "unambiguously" include digital content, and take technological advances into account.
In a manifesto launched on Monday at the Labour Party Conference in Manchester, the Library warned that traditional copyright law needs to be extended to fully recognise digital content.
"Unless there is a serious updating of copyright law to recognise the changing technological environment, the law becomes an ass," Lynne Brindley, chief executive of the British Library, told ZDNet UK.
Current digital rights management (DRM) technologies and licensing agreements can impose restrictions on copying content that go beyond the requirements of copyright law. This needs legal clarification, according to the British Library.
"DRM is a technical device, but it's being used in an all-embracing sense. It can't be circumvented for disabled access or preservation, and the technology doesn't expire [as traditional copyright does]. In effect it's overriding exceptions to copyright law," said Brindley.
The Library is keen to protect statutory exceptions and fair dealing, which enable libraries to make and preserve copies of content, and make them available for research purposes and for disabled access.
"This is a global, international issue," said Bridley. "We have to have the same balance as in traditional print. We are seeking a triage ensuring creators are rewarded, but also that the public good is served."
Digital civil rights organisation the Open Rights Group said it "whole-heartedly supported" the British Library's call for a clarification of copyright law.
"One of the key problems is that the limitations and exceptions to copyright law are being ignored by business, which is imposing restrictive licences on digital content," Suw Charman, executive director of the Open Rights Group told ZDNet UK.
Charman said DRM restrictions could be particularly damaging for academic research.
"If a library carried a printed journal, academics and students could photocopy it. Digital journals have restrictions on access, which is a dangerous road to go down," said Charman. "If we allow companies to create their own licences, we undermine copyright law. If we say contract law is more important than copyright law, it allows publishers to write whatever licence they like, which is what is happening now."
The British Library said it was keen to play a leading role in moderating the debate between those who wish to make copyright law more restrictive, and those who wish to radically reform it.
The British Library also called for the question of "orphan works" — content where the rights holder is hard to find — to be addressed.
"There's an enormous amount of material locked up because we can't trace the copyright holders," said Brindley.