Mark's Musings

A miscellany of thoughts and opinions from an unimportant small town politician and bit-part web developer

Copyright reform, from a centre-right perspective


I had a slightly back-handed compliment the other day. Former Pirate Party UK leader, Andrew Robinson, commented on Twitter, “For any PPUK people who automatically assume Conservatives = The Bad Guys, follow @MarkGoodge (& read his blog) for a pleasant surprise.” Now, I’m no abolitionist as far as Intellectual Property is concerned, and I certainly don’t endorse the entire PPUK manifesto, so I’m maybe not entirely a friend either, but I’ll still take any praise on offer.

Robinson’s comment, though, touches on a serious point. It’s widely perceived that Conservatives are opposed to any reform of copyright which reduces the power of rights holders. Even though this government has shown itself receptive to sensible proposals for reform, I detect a certain feeling even among my Conservative colleagues and acquaintances that this is being driven by the LibDem side of the coalition.

I think this is mistaken. There are a number of very good reasons why the centre-right should be at the forefront of Intellectual Property reform. As it happens, this has been recognised by the Prime Minister, whose “exam question” set in the commissioning of the Hargreaves review, “Could it be true that laws designed more than three centuries ago with the express purpose of creating economic incentives for innovation by protecting creators’ rights are today obstructing innovation and economic growth?” was answered by Professor Hargreaves with an unreserved “Yes”.

David Cameron’s question and Professor Hargreaves’ response are at the heart of why I campaign for copyright reform. While it suits the traditional media businesses to portray campaigners for reform as digital anarchists and freeloaders (and, to be fair, some campaigners really do belong in those categories), the reality is that the biggest motive for change isn’t the desire of a bunch of cheapskate teenagers to get music, movies and games for free. The reasons we need change to Intellectual Property laws are because the current laws are stifling innovation, hindering research, restricting the choice of consumers and adding to the costs of businesses.

One of the biggest misconceptions about copyright is that it protects the creative sector (by which we generally mean record labels, film studios, etc) from the effects of what is popularly termed “piracy” – that is, filesharing and free downloading which infringes the creators’ rights – and, because the creative sector is a strong contributor to the economy, copyright laws must be designed with the creative sector in mind. That was certainly the view taken by the previous government, and led directly to the creation of the Digital Economy Act (DEA). Papers released in response to a Freedom of Information request have shown just how determined Lord Mandelson, as Business Secretary, was to ensure that the law reflected the desires of the record companies.

What was ignored by Mandelson, though, is the cost to other sectors of the economy of laws which favour the media industry. BT – unarguably one of the most successful privatisations by the 1980s Conservative administration – has been in the forefront of opposition to the DEA, pointing out that the costs of implementing it will inevitably have to be passed on to consumer and business customers, whether they engage in large scale copyright infringement or not. And, as Professor Hargreaves points out, there is practically no independent evidence to support the record companies’ assertion that filesharing is a major source of lost revenue (a point backed up by, possibly rather surprisingly, a recent report from PRS) or that it has any cost to the economy as a whole.

The simple fact is that onerous Intellectual Property laws are anti-business. They create an artificial monopoly for a small sector of industry, while adding costs and erecting barriers to innovation elsewhere. It isn’t just giants such as BT which will suffer; the impact of the DEA will be felt by every ISP and every Internet user in the UK. Entrepreneur and innovator Martin Brennan has been forced by the Advertising Standards Authority to add a disclaimer to his adverts stating that use of his product, the JB7 music system, is illegal – just because it allows people to store music they have already paid for in digital format.

That last absurdity is one that, fortunately, the government has already signalled its intention to change. It’s a good start, but much more needs to be done. One of the things that will help to ensure more does get done is for those on the centre-right to realise that copyright reform is both pro-business and pro-individual; outcomes which are at the heart of Conservative policy. Andrew Robinson expresses a widely-held opinion that Conservatives are the enemies of copyright reform, and this is often associated with a belief that the left is more supportive. In reality, despite the sterling efforts of a few campaigners such as Tom Watson MP, the Labour movement in general is both anti-reform and unresponsive to popular opinion. The willingness of former Labour ministers such as Lord Mandelson to lend a ready ear to celebrity pressure to to prop up failing industries is well documented. So is the equally reactionary approach of the unions in adopting a BECTU-inspired proposal to make copyright law even more anti-consumer.

I’m not dismissive of the work done by campaigners from the left of politics. I’ve already mentioned Tom Watson, who seems to have almost single-handedly carried the torch for copyright reform within the Labour party. Singer/songwriter and left-wing activist Billy Bragg has repeatedly pointed out how the big record labels don’t speak for the majority of musicians. I’ve previously directed readers of my blog to this excellent diatribe by Steve Lawson, someone who is in no danger of being mistaken for a Tory boy.

But there seems to be a mismatch here: At grassroots level there’s a much stronger focus of Intellectual Property activism on the left, despite the near-terminal opposition of senior Labour politicians to reform, while leading politicians on the centre-right are far more amenable to reform despite a lack of significant grassroots pressure for it. I’ve tried, and failed, for example, to get an article along the lines of this one published on ConservativeHome. It seems that there isn’t any real appetite for Intellectual Property issues among Conservative activists (I’m not in a position to speak for the LibDems), which is disappointing. It’s doubly disappointing because Intellectual Property reform is a genuinely populist issue; with the exception of those who earn their living as part of the vested interests it’s almost impossible to find anyone speaking in favour of the status quo, while the number of people effectively criminalised and the number of businesses disadvantaged by existing legislation is huge. The PM seems to realise this, and so – at least, up to a point – does the Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries. But it needs more involvement from those on the ground level of centre-right politics. I’d like to be able to name some names from the centre-right the next time I write something like this. So step forward, wherever you are.