The best democracy money can buy

The US and Canada are churning under scandalous revelations of big business buying political influence. It's about time we stirred some mud of our own

Other people's scandals are always the tastiest — and at the moment, the British are spoiled for choice. In the US, busted lobbyist Jack Abramoff is singing like a Welsh choirboy as he fingers everyone in receipt of dodgy cash, and the aria's still building. Politicians are donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to charity, lobbying firms are shutting down — including those used by Microsoft — and as people dig back into Abramoff's career, some interesting facts are getting aired. For example, he worked for a Seattle law and lobbying firm for the six years leading up to 2000, another one with Microsoft as a client — as well it might: the company, Preston Gates, bears a familiar family name.

Is there any connection between this sort of behaviour and the constant flow of big-business friendly intellectual-property legislation that laps around the seats of power in Washington, stuff not one sane, unbought person would want?

Let's move north a little, where Canadian MP Sam Bulte is running for her third term with the help of sponsorship from the Canadian Recording Industry Association, the Entertainment Software Alliance, the Canadian Motion Pictures Distributors Association, and so on. Last term, she tried to introduce legislation which massively increased the length of copyright duration, banned all sorts of personal copying and so on. That got shelved, but this time round Bulte wants to be Minister for Heritage.

Nothing like that happens over here. If only: if only it didn't, and if only we knew about it. The primary source for legislation these days is Europe, where we've had our own fair share of off-colour copyright, patent and other IP legislation. Is that because our lawmakers are being bought? Good luck in finding out: the register of interests is held as hundreds of individual hand-written documents in the language of the MEPs themselves (how's your Greek?) as non-searchable PDFs on their home pages — and some MEPs can't even be bothered with that. Even that's a hard-won advance over a couple of years ago, when the documents were held offline in Brussels in a small room where no photographs could be taken.

Our own legislative system remains impenetrably obscure, despite calls for clarity. While the news from abroad may surprise few and amuse many, the evidence is we're overdue for an IP-law scandal or two ourselves. That we've never had one may be the biggest scandal of all.

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