UK must modernise copyright laws, report urges

The government-commissioned Hargreaves review has been published, calling for copyright exemptions for private copies and parodies, and urging resistance against patents for software and business processes

The UK needs to modernise its intellectual property laws in order to stimulate innovation and growth, journalism professor Ian Hargreaves has recommended in an independent, government-commissioned report.

Copyright Hargreaves report cover

The Digital Opportunity report by Professor Ian Hargreaves has said that the UK needs to overhaul its copyright laws.

The report, entitled Digital Opportunity: A Review of Intellectual Property and Growth (PDF), was published on Wednesday, having been requested by David Cameron late in 2010. Among the measures recommended by Hargreaves are allowing people to copy music and video from their CDs and DVDs to their portable media players — something that most iPod owners already do, but which remains technically illegal — and introducing an exemption for people who use copyrighted works in parodies.

In addition, Hargreaves urged the government to resist introducing patents for software and business processes, and to work more closely with other EU countries to introduce a pan-European patent system.

"The government should take a leading role in promoting international efforts to cut backlogs and manage the boom in patent applications by further extending 'work sharing' with patent offices in other countries," he added, in a section devoted to so-called 'patent thickets'.

The professor, who teaches journalism at Cardiff University, also backed the establishment of an online Digital Copyright Exchange. This clearing house for intellectual property (IP) rights-holders and others would boost UK firms' access to transparent, contestable and global digital markets, he said.

 Copyright law has started to act as a regulatory barrier to the creation of certain kinds of new, internet-based businesses.

– Professor Ian Hargreaves

"IP law must adapt to change," Hargreaves wrote. "Digital communications technology involves routine copying of text, images and data, meaning that copyright law has started to act as a regulatory barrier to the creation of certain kinds of new, internet-based businesses... Throughout the review, we have sought to base our judgments on economic evidence and we advise [the] government to frame its policy decisions on that basis."

The review is the fourth government-commissioned report into the country's intellectual property laws within the last six years, and recommends many of the same measures as its predecessors. For example, it calls for copyright exemptions for format-shifting and parody; these were two notable proposals in the Gowers Review of 2006, but were ignored by the government at the time.

A spokesman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) told ZDNet UK the government is "definitely taking all of [Hargreaves's] recommendations seriously" and is likely to give its formal response in June.

'Rich harvest' of economic growth

"I hope that ministers this time will bite the bullet, not be swayed by some of the very powerful lobbies that are at work in this sector, and that they will do the right thing," Hargreaves said on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme on Wednesday. "If they do, they will reap a rich harvest of greater economic growth."

According to Hargreaves, exports from the UK's digital creative industries rank only behind those from advanced engineering, and financial and professional services.

"In order to grow these creative businesses further globally, they need efficient, open and effective digital markets at home, where rights can be speedily licensed and effectively protected," he wrote.

The copyright regime cannot be considered fit for the digital age when millions of citizens are in daily breach of copyright, simply for shifting a piece of music or video from one device to another.

– Professor Ian Hargreaves

Suggesting that the government had to update copyright law because consumers lack confidence in the way the law works, Hargreaves said the first change should be releasing 'orphan works' — works where the copyright holder cannot be traced — for use. The fact that a work is 'orphan' would be established through searching the Digital Copyright Exchange.

"This is a move with no economic downside," he said.

"The copyright regime cannot be considered fit for the digital age when millions of citizens are in daily breach of copyright, simply for shifting a piece of music or video from one device to another," he added. "People are confused about what is allowed and what is not, with the risk that the law falls into disrepute."

Hargreaves also noted that scientific and other researchers are not legally able to use modern text and data-mining techniques due to copyright law. He said this should change, as should the inability of libraries to archive vast quantities of copyrighted material.

Policy 'design manual'

Reaction to Hargreaves's report came swiftly from both sides of the copyright debate. Open Rights Group campaigner Peter Bradwell said the professor had delivered "the design manual to a 21st-century copyright policy".

"He shows that we can allow useful activities like new medical research techniques or parodies and maintain flourishing creative industries," Bradwell said in a statement. "This evidence-based blueprint should finally help government balance copyright in the interest of creators, consumers and innovators. It is vital they follow it."

Business secretary Vince Cable said the government is wholly focused on boosting growth and could not afford to shy away from looking at complicated or controversial areas. "That's why I welcome this report and its clear link between intellectual property and potential economic growth," he said.

The Creative Coalition Campaign, lobbyists on behalf of rights-holders, said it was "delighted" to see Hargreaves had rejected the wholesale importation of a US-style 'fair use' system. Hargreaves did so because such a system would not actually be legal under EU law; however, he said the UK could achieve much the same effect by unbanning format-shifting and parody use, which are permitted under European law.

UK technology body the Business Software Alliance (BSA) was less pleased, saying it was disappointed that the review did not call for tougher penalties for those who unlawfully copy software.

The Motion Picture Association also said it was "concerned" about the copyright exemptions outlined in the report.

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