UK gov't admits pulling 10-year file-sharing jail term out of thin air

Opinion: What is the justification for 10 years behind bars for pirates? Whatever the UK's IPO imagines.

The UK's Intellectual Property Office (IPO) has admitted making up official justification for slamming pirates with 10 years behind bars for infringing intellectual property rights online.

The agency, responsible for controlling intellectual property (IP) rights including patents, designs, trademarks and copyright, received a freedom of information request from The Register which resulted in admittance that "unpublished research" used to back the UK's 10-year maximum sentence for file sharers was based on nothing more than internal opinion.

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The IPO told the publication that the term "unpublished research" was meant only to refer to "inferences and conclusions drawn following the IPO's internal policy formulation and development."

These conclusions were based on the "evidence and opinion" of people over a public consultation period, but the IPO's decree utterly opposes the opinions of those who took part in the public commentary. Out of those who responded to the IPO's queries, the majority rejected the increase (.PDF) in sentencing from two years to 10 years. Most of the responses came from the Open Rights Group.

Baroness Neville-Rolfe, minister for intellectual property, responded to the consultation by stating the new jail term (.PDF) would "protect rights holders, while making the boundaries of the offense clearer, so that everyone can understand how the rules should be applied."

The public consultation brought forward more questions than it answered. As Ars Technica reports, some of the wording is vague when it comes to offenses and the legislation would make the accused culpable even if they did not mean harm when sharing a file.

However, one reason for the hefty term to be pushed through is to harmonize the disparity between the current 10-year prison term for physical intellectual property theft -- such as bootlegged DVDs or CDs -- and two years for online pirating, which despite being far easier to acquire, has a less severe sentence.

The IPO still recommends the new sentence based on this consultation, and oddly, also cited a 2005 Gowers Review (.PDF) which actually said a prison term was the wrong approach. The review suggested that financial penalties were more suitable, and this was later introduced into law. In addition, the UK agency also cited a Penalty Fair? report which concluded the jail term should not be increased -- before removing this citation and the link to the Gowers report in the latest proposal.

Finally, the IPO referred to exchanges with stakeholders on the bill to 'support' the recommendation -- of which only 21 out of over 1,000 shareholders approved -- and debates on the IP Bill in 2014, which was later withdrawn for additional review.

Frankly, citing sources which do not support your argument, especially when it is a government agency, is bizarre. With such a conclusion seemingly pulled out of thin air, you could wonder whether the proposed changes are due to some kind of external pressure which has ensured public and academic opinion is ignored.

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