I’ve watched government Internet regulation since the USA Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA, 1998). The Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act (CBDTPA, 2002) proposals which followed—and failed—were insane. Over here we have our original Copyright Designs and Patents Act (CDPA, 1988) modified by the the EU Copyright Directive (EUCD, 2001) and our subsequent Digital Economy Act (DEA, 2010) rushed through by the dying Labour administration.
The USA is at it again. Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA, 2010) didn’t pass into law but has returned as Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA, 2011) and Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act (Protect-IP, 2011). You may have seen some of this debate online.
Cameron, the UK Prime Minister, has set up the Hargreaves Review (a rehash of the previous government’s Gowers Review) to modernise UK copyright online. He believes—mistakenly in my view—that copyright must be more flexible to support Internet entrepreneurs (in his words, like Google).
It’s one of those debates that has become polarised into right and wrong. If you criticise DEA and SOPA you must be a freetard; if you don’t you must be a dinosaur. Unfortunately, that sums up 99.9% of the whole discussion. Of course, nothing is that simple. These regulations involve many complex issues: the role of ISPs, copyright registration, license databases, orphan works and collective licensing among many others, as well as the technology that goes with them.
The big problem is governments don’t understand the Internet. Even the best-informed seem to think it must be easy to “clamp down on piracy”. It isn’t. They don’t even have a good grasp of copyright. Well, it’s not easy.
Big Business lobbyists are no better. Major record labels have long confused file-sharing with “piracy”. Every download which doesn’t pass through their cash register is theft.
Internet Utopians don’t help. They would be quite happy if rights were swept aside so that information could finally be free.
It’s a mess.
What’s the problem? We had a (kind of) working copyright law. Have things really got so bad that we need all this mayhem?
I don’t think so.
Some changes are needed but the basis of copyright—that the creator owns their work, for a time, without asking—must stay. And the interests of Big Business are not so threatened that they must be given control of what gets published on the Internet.
The DMCA safe harbour which allows Grooveshark and YouTube to host infringing material is not working. The complex licensing system which charges users and rewards owners has become distorted, and territorial licensing is somewhat daft in the age of the world wide web.
In recent years PRS has recognised the growth of individual rights owners by lowering its membership fees and distributing income at small venues directly to the performing songwriters and composers who earn it. By contrast, government copyright drafting and legislation remains dominated by Big Business and large copyright owners—the Major record labels and publishers.
The history of copyright, since 1709, is patchy. Vested interests have frequently abused their power. Lobbyists from all sides are once again making all the noise but copyright is important for everyone. Joe Bloggs’ cat videos can earn more than a big label pop record and small artist Facebook pages should not be threatened by spurious takedowns. Let’s hope government is listening to their people as much as the lobbyists, and if you have an opinion let them know.