European Union bosses look set to ditch restrictive US-led initiatives on copyright law in a drive to get cultural content including a million hours of BBC TV programmes onto the Internet.
Neelie Kroes, the European Commission vice-president responsible for the 'digital agenda', today told an audience of copyright lobby groups from the International Federation of Reproduction Rights Organisations not to be afraid of the change, but admitted that there were "some legal and financial obstacles to overcome" before the aims of the Accessible Registries of Rights information and Orphan Works (ARROW) initiative could be achieved.
Unless moves were made to digitise Europe's cultural life, Kroes warned rights holders, valuable resources would be lost to the public.
"If we let things go, there is a serious risk that there will be a '20th century black hole' on the Internet," said Kroes. "It is a duty of our time not to let this happen."
"ARROW offers a practical solution to several challenges identified in the Digital Agenda," Kroes told delegates. "First, there is the aim of building a common digital market. Second, there is of course also the development of Europeana, the European digital library, to make sure it can become the reference point for Europe's digital culture online."
Kroes hinted that the move to make "every piece of European culture digital" would require major changes in EU copyright law, so that the vast number of so-called 'orphan works' in European collections - creations whose authors cannot be traced, and whose legal status is therefore uncertain - could be published online.
"For the moment only a very small percentage of the material accessible through Europeana is in-copyright material," said Kroes. "That should change. And one of the key problems to solve in order to make that happen is the orphan works problem.
"Depending on the sector concerned, estimates of the number of orphan works in cultural institutions vary from around 20 per cent for films and slightly less for books, at the low end, to up to 90 per cent for photography at the high end. That is a truly staggering figure, which shows up one of the massive difficulties in applying theory of copyright in practice.
"The British library estimates that 40 per cent of works in their collections are orphan and over one million hours of TV programmes from BBC archives are not used due to the impossibility or the disproportionate cost to trace rightholders - and the risk of a subsequent legal action is simply too great for this material to be made available online.
"That uncertainly benefits neither the rightholders who cannot be traced, nor the creative industries or the wider public.
"We must move away from the current playing field for specialists in copyright law," Kroes told her audience. "It is high time to understand that, while the US is looking for solutions through complex judicial means, Europe should move forward and find innovative practical solutions for tapping the huge treasures of our culture for citizens and businesses alike."