Copyright Bills And Big Fish

Digital Economy Bill Protests Mar2010

Image by Amilm

Once more, digital is punching well above its weight. Facebook and Twitter were the tools of choice forJon and Tracy Morter to unseat Simon Cowell at Christmas, and now the highly democratic Twitter looks like steering a new course for the Digital Economy Bill.

(For anyone who needs a quick catch-up on the Bill, skip to the end of this post for a summary.)

As the Bill approaches its second reading in the Commons there’s a flurry of activity among the digerati to encourage deeper thinking. A roster of business and celebrity opponents aired their concerns in an open letter to the Financial Times (which, without a trace of irony, hides the online version of the letter behind a subscription wall).

There are three worries with the current play:

1. The current wording of the Bill allows for penalisation of any ‘carrier’ whether they know their system is used or not. Internet providers have had a ‘safe harbour’ clause since 2001 that protects them from unwittingly transmitting illegal & unsanitary entertainment, but requires them to respond urgently when alerted to it. What the Bill proposes is that (a) this safe harbour no longer always applies, and (b) anyone can be an internet provider: cafes, schools, businesses, libraries… parents…

It’s worth looking at Paul Carr’s blog on TechCrunch which provides a highly balanced discussion of the Bill itself.

2. The second issue is more fundamental. Government is rushing this through, doubtless because it sees an urgent commercial imperative to solve a problem before the next administration. But frustratingly, government seems only to have two default positions: interminable consultation that is out of date by the time of delivery; or a frantic rush to make a decision that pleases no one.

How is it that we have technology that connects people quickly, evolves decisions organically, and reshapes thinking on-the-fly, and yet the only options we have for constructing our laws are inaccessible or interminable? If we had an egalitarian imperative like the commercial imperative of a modern business, we’d have a radically different system of law. I’m willing to bet that if a Starbucks COO restructured the UK legal system, we’d have a much smoother and accountable ride, albeit with nonsensical names like Tall, Grande and Venti. (All of which mean ‘big’ in my book, but that’s another blog.)

3. The third is an ivory tower issue around the very nature of copyright and the business barriers it defends. On the face of it, copyright is about the protection of creators. Yet from Picasso to Jazzy B, the smartest creators have shown repeatedly that one person’s finished work is another person’s starting point.

Copyright law is driven by a vested interest in protecting business. Prior to the invention of the printing press, it took a great deal of scribing to copy a book (the Bible, say) and anyone in the business of disseminating information (the church, say) had a solid business with high barriers to entry.

Along came Gutenberg and made it so darn easy that everyone was at it. Ideas, information, entertainment gushed out of every crevice. Works of acceptable quality (gospels, say) were encouraged by the establishment, but works of conflict (Erasmus grandfather-of-Charles Darwin, say, who suggested we all came from primordial soup) weren’t.

So licensing sprang up across Europe whereby governments granted exclusive rights for printers to publish something – as long as the government approved of it.

There is nothing wrong with copyright as a principle. Copyright is a mainstay of protecting the creative from the stupid, the genius from the copier, the artist from the pretender. But there is a massive wrong with using copyright as anti-market protectionism for incumbent businesses. It’s an anti-innovation way of ensuring Britain does not rise to the top.

What seems to concern people most isn’t whether it’s right or wrong, but that the debate hasn’t happened. The debate on what is and should be protected, how it should be protected, and who it should be protected from has not happened.

But law is being drawn up. Fast.

In response, last Monday, the campaign group 38degrees launched a page where people could encourage their MPs to think a little harder before going to law. Tweets quickly started the rounds asking people to send letters to their MPs. Will Twitter prove once again to be David to the incumbent industry Goliaths? On the day of its launch the site got 103 visits. On Tuesday 1,183. On Wednesday 5,241.

Tweeters suggested that if 10,000 people sign up, the Bill would be pushed backwards. Even assuming the conversion rate of a spammer (0.01% of those visiting the page will send a mail to their MP), 38degrees got their 10,000 letters – and more – within a week of launch.

How’s that for democracy?

Summary of the Bill

  • A broader reach for Ofcom to report and regulate digital media
  • Providers of internet services are obliged to reduce copyright infringement
  • Government can prohibit certain domain names from being registered
  • The public service obligations of TV channels 3, 4, and 5 are revised
  • Revised national radio licensing in preparation for digital switchover
  • Changes in game classification

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About Morgan Holt

Morgan Holt is senior strategist at Wolff Olins, the global game-changing brand consultancy. He is also chairman of the Branded Content Marketing Association, and a non-executive director of CN Media Group.

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