RIP Intellectual Property UK

Today sees the implementation of changes to the UK’s Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. The revisions announced by business secretary Vince Cable will have a profound and in large part negative effect on the rights of intellectual property owners – those whose skill and time has gone into producing art, literature, journalism and other creative content. The principal beneficiaries of the amended law are internet search engines and service providers, but the changes will have knock-on effect that favours free lunch culture at all levels.

Some of the revisions to Britain’s intellectual property regime are welcome. The old law was unfit for an online world, and the Hargreaves review of intellectual property identified a number of areas in need of reform. The government listened to Hargreaves, and as a result we have the removal of some needless bureaucratic and legal obstacles. But Hargreaves’ rejection of the US definition of ‘fair use’ has been ignored by a government fallen prey to the lobbying of multinational corporations whose business models are based on the universal-scale commercial use of others’ work without compensation to content creators.

Dr Cable’s announcement focuses on benefits to consumers, but these are minor changes; the substantive revisions to the copyright act are glossed over. A few examples…

  • Education: if a distance learning organisation, whether commercial or non-profit, wishes to make use of substantive extracts from books and periodicals, it should as part of its business plan account for the costs incurred by content creators and publishers.
  • Reporting: it has long been accepted that one can legitimately quote short extracts from a creative work for the purposes of journalistic reporting and comment, but the new changes legitimise the wholesale copying and republication of material. Intellectual property owners have a moral right to dictate how, where and the extent to which their material is used. In allowing search engines and others to reproduce in full or large part the creative work of others, that right is effectively nullified.
  • Orphaned works: changes to the copyright act loosen the definition of works the owners of which cannot be identified, and photographers are especially vulnerable in this respect, with identification tags easily removed from digital images before posting them online. The onus is now on copyright owners to challenge unauthorised use of their property, which is tantamount to saying that theft is acceptable as long as it goes undetected.

The UK government has breezily dismissed critics of its changes to intellectual property law. These include various national governments and supranational agencies, as well as the National Union of Journalists and other organisations which represent content creators.

This is about much more than the freedom of private individuals to convert legitimately purchased CDs and DVDs to formats suitable for use on mobile devices and personal computers. Yet that is how it is being portrayed.