Any Hint Of Evidence Based Copyright In The UK Seen As Nefarous Plot By Parliamentary Copyright Maximalists
from the can't-have-that dept
The laws governing intellectual monopolies in the UK are in a state of flux at the moment. After the previous government in its dying hours rammed through the shoddy piece of work known as the Digital Economy Act, the present coalition government took a more rational approach by commissioning the Hargreaves Review into the impact of digital technologies on this area. One of its key proposals was that policy should be based on evidence, not "lobbynomics"; the fact that this even needs to be mentioned says much about the way laws have been framed until now.
As a result, the UK's Intellectual Property Office (IPO) has been trying to gather evidence in order to help politicians draw up new policies that correspond to the data, not just dogma. Not surprisingly, perhaps, those that have done well under the previous evidence-free approach have been mounting a rearguard action against the changes.
One of the people unhappy about both the Hargreaves Review and the IPO's response is the UK MP Peter Wishart, who made the following comments about them in Parliament earlier this year:
Ian Hargreaves was notionally in charge of that process [of looking at digital copyright], but having observed evidence being taken, and the report and recommendations be delivered, I suggest that the hand of the Intellectual Property Office was all over it. I believe that Ian Hargreaves was perhaps a figurehead, because the IPO seems to have driven the agenda. We will discuss some of the exceptions to copyright that the IPO proposed as part of its consultation, but it has been steering the process all the way through.
Wishart is also the Vice Chair of something called the All Party Parliamentary Intellectual Property Group. Here's how it describes itself:
What is that predicated on? It is predicated on the belief that economic evidence should be at the heart of every initiative and everything that we do concerning intellectual property law. Ian Hargreaves has been perhaps a little cavalier when it comes to intellectual property, and we could say that he has made heroic assumptions about the value of some of the proposed recommendations and exceptions.
The Group was launched in 2003 as a response to this and to create a resource for parliamentarians of both Houses interested in learning more about intellectual property (IP), its role in stimulating creativity and economic growth, how new services are developing to serve consumer needs, and the harm that can be caused when IP is not properly respected and protected.
As that makes clear, the All Party Parliamentary Intellectual Property Group is not an official UK government body, but more of a club for like-minded individuals. Earlier this year, the group announced its unofficial inquiry into how the UK government was handling intellectual monopolies:
The Group will seek to unpick the tangled web of cross-departmental responsibilities in this area by considering how policy has been developed, the effectiveness of the current approach, and whether the machinery of government can be improved for better policy formulation.
It's hard not to see this as an attack on the IPO and its new approach -- one of the six questions posed was "How effective is the Intellectual Property Office and what should its priorities be? (pdf)". That suspicion is confirmed by the recent publication of the results (pdf).
The group's philosophy is made plain early on in the document:
The fact that IP attracts so much interest reflects its increasing importance in our economy. Clearly IP on its own does not generate economic activity, but as a property right, it enables innovators, creators, manufacturers and designers to protect their innovation and monetise their work.
Except that copyright and patents aren't property rights, but "a government grant of a costly and dangerous private monopoly over ideas." Indeed, the increasing recognition that it makes no sense to treat copyright and patents as a property right really seems to stick in the craw of the parliamentary group. Here's what it says on the subject:
We were also concerned that officials from the IPO find it difficult to describe intellectual property as a property right. It was described as a framework by one official which immediately undermines it. If the IPO sees IP as a framework then it suggests they see it as something that can be shaped and altered at will. We question whether such a laissez fair[e] attitude would be taken to other property rights and if they were, whether senior Officials and Ministers would allow such an attitude to pervade.
Note that the IPO is blamed here for simply conveying a truth that is unpalatable to the group. Elsewhere, the report tries really hard to find other reasons to blame the IPO; unfortunately, the facts keep getting in the way:
The evidence we received and heard was varied in this respect. Certainly the IPO's role as a registration body for patents was seen as very positive as was its role in educating both consumers and business about IP.
Whoops, sounds like the IPO is doing a good job for patents, so what about for copyright?
People's criticisms of the IPO's policy making process appear to have been ignited by their most recent recommendations in relation to copyright. There were many groups who supported these recommendations and the process by which they came about, however a very large number did not.
Oh dear: "many groups" supported the IPO again; but luckily, others did not. That is hardly surprising, since some of the ideas being considered by the IPO would try to put a modicum of balance back in UK laws governing copyright. That's never really happened before, thanks to the ratchet effect that has ensured the public domain has been constantly impoverished when the law is changed.
The idea that stakeholders might have to give something back to the public in the form of minimal exceptions may be unheard of, but it's hardly unreasonable. Arguably, we need to run the ratchet back much further in order to obtain anything like a fair balance between the rights of stakeholders, and the rights of the public.
But the latter are rarely considered. Indeed, it's significant that the world "public" isn't mentioned once in the Parliamentary group's new report. The nearest thing we get is "consumers", notably in the following paragraph, which betrays a typical lack of understanding about how formerly passive consumers are morphing into active co-creators:
When the officials from the IPO gave evidence, they were very clear that they saw their role as providing balance -- they see this balance as ensuring consumers can have access to content. We believe the IPO should look more carefully at how the IP framework stimulates the creation and development of new content, services, designs and other IP rich innovation as much as how existing content can be accessed. Only if they do this, will consumers of the future continue to have access to the content, products and services they enjoy.
That paragraph sums up why the All Party Parliamentary Intellectual Property Group so dislikes the IPO: the latter is trying to provide balance, and that is really the last thing that the copyright maximalists and their allies want to see here.