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MPs have missed the mark in attacking copyright reform

Copyright is changing. Some are yet to catch on. eddiedangerous

The House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee set out some fairly strong views last week about how its members think the UK should approach copyright reform.

I have an interest to declare in that I have been heavily involved in this debate since the autumn of 2010, when I was asked by the UK government to conduct an independent review of intellectual property law, with a particular focus on economic growth.

On copyright, the committee makes four strong recommendations: that Google should be forced to block content which involves copyright infringement as robustly as it blocks child pornography; that the maximum penalty for copyright theft be increased to ten years in jail; that the government should get on with implementing the anti-piracy measures proposed in the 2010 Digital Economy Act; and that it should reverse its hitherto favourable stance on the measures proposed in my review.

My work, the committee says, is part of an agenda which “could cause irreversible damage to the creative sector on which the UK’s future prosperity will significantly depend.” In the CMS committee’s view: “the existing law works well.”

Here are some respects in which the existing law does not work well. The fact that it remains illegal for anyone to do what most of us routinely do – namely to copy one rights-protected file, such as music, from one device we own to another. No wonder people are so confused about the boundary between lawful and unlawful. The answer? A carefully drawn exception in copyright law to permit personal, non-commercial copying of files: a reform the committee opposes.

Reform is also needed in several other areas: to relieve archivists of the dilemma that it can be illegal for them to copy a work even for preservation and to prevent damaging restrictions on the ability of researchers to use techniques such as text and data mining; or to make copyright rules right for digital era schools and universities. Workable and detailed reforms are now being put forward by the government to address these issues.

The case I made in the review was that a successful copyright regime in a digital world needed to be shorn of palpable absurdity if the law is to be respected and enforceable in a way which commands broad public support. I also argue that rights holders need to do a better job in licensing and selling rights, especially for small, low-value transactions, through what I called a Digital Copyright Exchange.

This aspect of the project, at least, meets with the committee’s approval, but a successful exchange cannot do the job alone: if the law continues to be dressed as an ass, it will damage the exchange as well. Put together one-click licensing and laws that pass the common sense test and we will release a significant new level of energy in the collaborative, co-productive world of the creative economy.

In my view, the committee’s core misjudgement arises from the fact that it appears to be focused exclusively on the perspective of existing, mostly large, creative industry players and not at all upon emerging digital firms and entrepreneurs. Nor does it take account of consumers, who appear to have been left behind in this report.

A more balanced approach is necessary if we are to make the most of the UK’s creative economy. This term, “creative economy”, by the way, appears in the CMS Committee report’s title, but it is never defined and appears to be used interchangeably and randomly with the term “creative industries”.

In the recent Nesta Manifesto for the Creative Economy, which I co-authored, we clear up this imprecision by defining the creative economy based on labour force data which enables us to count creative workers, inside and beyond the creative industries, and so to compute the value of their work and the size of the creative economy.

By these Nesta definitions, the UK creative economy employs 2.5 million people and accounts for something like 10 per cent of UK gross value added. Having nailed this down, we set out an agenda to ensure the creative economy prospers.

This includes a “schools digital pledge” to ensure that the curriculum brings together art, design, technology and computer science; a seven-point plan for creative clusters; and proposals to put creative economy research and development on a par with other business sectors. We discuss the role of the BBC and offer some thoughts about the complex issue of policing competition on the internet. We also say that a carefully undertaken reform of copyright, operating within the framework of exceptions permitted in European law and a prospective, unified EU digital market, will be an indispensable component of success.

I think this a much better programme for supporting the UK creative economy than the one put forward by the CMS Committee’s politicians. Why not read both and judge for yourself.

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