Dragging copyright law into the 21st century

An update of intellectual property law is long overdue. But can the government move fast enough in this digital age?

You might consider yourself a law-abiding Londoner, but you’re not. Most of us aren’t. Why? Because whenever you copy a legally purchased CD onto any type of MP3 player, you break the law.

Fortunately your outlaw days could soon be over. The government has taken its first step to change it, and about time too, considering that the law hasn’t been revised for more than 30 years.

The government has accepted recommendations made by Professor Ian Hargreaves in his report ‘Digital Opportunity: A review of intellectual property and growth which identifies potential gains to the UK economy of up to £7.9bn by 2020.

Business secretary Vince Cable said:

“We are accepting the recommendations and will now set about reforming the UK’s intellectual property systems. Opening up intellectual property laws can deliver real value to the UK economy as well as the creators and consumers.”

So what are these recommendations?

Among ones that have been accepted are:

  • The UK should have a digital marketplace where licences in copyright content can be readily bought and sold. The review predicted that a “digital copyright exchange” could add up as much as £2bn a year to the UK economy by 2020. A feasibility study will now begin to establish how such an exchange will look and work.
  • Copyright exceptions covering limited private copying should be introduced to realise growth opportunities. Thousands of people copy legitimately purchased content, such as a CD to a computer or portable device such as an iPod, assuming it is legal. This move will bring copyright law into line with the real world, and with consumers’ reasonable expectations.
  • The introduction of an exception to copyright for search and analysis techniques known as “text and data mining”. Research scientists such as medical researchers are restricted in working on data because it is illegal under copyright law to do this without permission of copyright owners. The establishment of licensing and clearance procedures for orphan works (material with unknown copyright owners) would open up a range of works locked away in libraries and museums.

Despite these recommendations there is considerable doubt about how to implement and interpret the new laws once they come into effect. 

Digital copyright exchange – a mark of respect or a misnomer?

A copyright shop where licences can be bought and sold is touted as the “big idea” of Hargreaves’ report but copyright professionals have mixed feelings about such an exchange.

It is very impractical and overcomplicated in theory. When people can download music and movies for free, why would they go to the copyright exchange to pay for all this?

Adam Morallee, intellectual property lawyer at Mishcon de Reya

“I think the introduction of a copyright exchange is a mark of respect for the creative industry,” says Henna Riaz, managing partner at royalty payment tracker 360 audit, whose global clients include entertainment one, BBC Worldwide, Endemol and Nickelodeon/Mtv. 

While some of our clients feel that the ownership of their work will be diluted, others are really looking forward to the exchange because it would help their work be enjoyed by the people they made it for.”

But Adam Morallee, intellectual property lawyer at Mishcon de Reya, doesn’t think the exchange will see the light of day.

It is very impractical and overcomplicated in theory. When people can download music and movies for free, why would they go to the copyright exchange to pay for all this?”

However, Guy Wilmot, technology licensing expert at solicitors Russell-Cooke, has some hope for the exchange.

The digital copyright exchange is the only reform that comes close to being real. The exchange will give upcoming musicians, filmmakers and small businesses a way of licensing their work,” he says.

But how will the exchange deal with orphan works, for which copyright owners can’t be contacted? It is an issue which needs resolving. With a target of pumping £2bn a year into the UK economy by 2020, the digital copyright exchange, if fit comes to fruition, will have a lot on its shoulders.

Content mining: been there, done that

The Hargreaves review points out that 87 per cent of the material housed in the UK’s main medical research database is unavailable for legal text and data mining despite the fact that the technology exists to carry out this analytical work.

“The Hargreaves Review did not conduct any economic impact assessment of this proposal. If it had, it would have found that the proposal of a blanket exception is unnecessary”

Richard Mollet, chief executive of the Publishers Association

Yet the Publishers Association asserts that publishers have always welcomed content mining and have been doing it for years.

Richard Mollet, chief executive of the Publishers Association says:

“The Hargreaves Review did not conduct any economic impact assessment of this proposal. If it had, it would have found that the proposal of a blanket exception is unnecessary, given the market-based solutions which are already in operation; and they would have identified the potential for economic harm created by the uncertainly, lack of clarity and opportunity for infringement which an exception creates.”

But web developers, on the other hand, are looking forward to Hargreaves’ recommendations bearing fruit.

Jeff Lynn, chairman of the Coalition Of a Digital Economy, which represents Silicon Roundabout companies, says:

“Those of us who believe that the future of Britain’s economy depends largely on the digital innovations occurring among the Silicon Roundabout community and throughout the country are very happy with the government’s response to the Hargreaves recommendations. We applaud strongly the commitment to making these pivotally important changes a reality, and we look forward to working with the government on the detail of each of the forthcoming proposals and consultations.”

Anti-piracy SOS call

Amidst the hoopla of copyright exemptions the government seems to have turned a deaf ear to the creative industries’ incessant plea of cracking down on piracy. 

“The government has clearly missed the point. The creative industry wants immediate action against piracy and counterfeiting which robs them of their profits”

Henna Riaz, managing partner at royalty payment tracker 360 audit

As soon as a film or an album is released, it is splattered all over the internet. How will the government check that? Cracking down on piracy and putting down serious punishments should top the government’s priority list. What the creative industry needs is serious protection of their work,” says Morallee.

The government has clearly missed the point, agrees 360 Audit’s Riaz. “While the government proclaims that the copyright reforms will boost UK’s economy, the reality is that the government is constantly under pressure from the creative industries to address issues affecting their trade. The creative industry wants immediate action against piracy and counterfeiting, which robs them of their profits.”

A CBI spokesperson voiced the same concern:

“The government must continue to send a strong signal that piracy is illegal because without firm action to tackle it, the UK’s creative industries will be undermined.”

Boost for businesses or much ado about nothing?

The copyright shake-up could also provide the impetus for businesses to rethink the way they market their products. 

Riaz says: “The creative industries would have to come up with more creative and resourceful ways to package their work so that their fans still go to a shop to pay money to own their work.”

Not everyone is so confident. Morallee at Mishcon de Reya doesn’t think that businesses will be a beneficiary.”What the copyright reforms would go on to is provide another platform such as Limewire or iTunes, but I doubt it would boost the economy with the billions as promised,” he suggests.

The core challenge for the government is to safeguard the interests of copyright owners without blocking new online business models. Doing this effectively is a huge challenge.

For example, Guy Wilmot at Russell-Cooke thinks that changes to the copyright laws will make no difference to the rate at which illegal internet technology ventures grow. “The success of these reforms is directly proportional to the speed at which the government implements them. The laws can never come close to the rate at which internet and technology is developing,” he says.

But then again, can anything keep up with the rate at which they are developing? The law has been making criminals of ordinary people for years and most people didn’t have a clue.

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