Reforming the IP laws is your job

Intellectual-property reform is needed, and the government agrees. Get ready to get stuck in

There's nothing like licensing law reform to kick off a moral panic: there is no right answer, but everyone thinks otherwise. With alcohol, the removal of restrictions from nearly a hundred years ago provoked a ferocious battle between the Latins — who say a light Mediterranean touch will produce responsible behaviour — and the Scandinavians, who think that tighter controls are the only way to effectively regulate the thirst of a nation. Reform was a manifesto promise, but it still nearly caused a government defeat.

Now another set of promised reforms is in the air. PM-in-waiting Gordon Brown has kicked off an independent review into intellectual property for the "digital age". Good: reform is desperately needed. But we should beware of another moral panic, which as with pub licensing reform would only suit those in favour of the status quo.

There are two ways to make sure that the reform process creates more light than heat. The first is to remind ourselves what intellectual property is and why it exists. It is there to promote the act of creation: check any IP rights organisation, and this is always first in its mission statement.

Yet that's not just a matter of money: unless you are God or a particle physicist, creation can't take place in a vacuum. The act of creation needs to be fed with the ideas of others, and so IP ensures that there are ways to use these independently. The right of a creator to be rewarded does not necessarily override the rights of others to make use of the creations: anyone who emphasises one side of the equation at the expense of the other may not be in the game for the benefit of all.

Second, get involved. We know from previous experience that because IP is such big business, big business will be lobbying intensively to promote its own ideas. Given that the current IP regime has afforded companies some of the biggest profit margins available outside organised crime, those ideas are unlikely to be reform minded. If you feel — as we do — that there are good arguments for making IP less onerous and restrictive, with wider fair use provisions, stricter qualifications for legal protection, shorter periods of monopoly rights and outright removal for IP abuse, then don't waste any time waiting for well-paid lobbyists to take up the cause.

We'll be doing our bit. Meanwhile, keep an eye on the official Web site, where contact details are due to appear shortly, and get ready to take part. If you don't, it'll be last orders all over again.

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