Politicians Start Getting Digital Copyright Right

As readers of this blog probably recall, the passage of the Digital Economy Act was one of the most disgraceful episodes in the history of the last government, pushed through as it was with minimal debate, and largely at the behest of industry...

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As readers of this blog probably recall, the passage of the Digital Economy Act was one of the most disgraceful episodes in the history of the last government, pushed through as it was with minimal debate, and largely at the behest of industry lobbyists.

If the present coalition had wanted to prove that it was making a clean break with the past, one way would have been to repeal the Digital Economy Act and to start again, taking things calmly and with input from all interested parties. Sadly, that has not happened, and disturbing evidence is emerging that, on the contrary, the current government is just as bad as the last lot, as James Firth's blog post reveals:

Leaked documents; or rather, sections redacted in previously-released official documents; now reveal at least one reason for further delays to the IOC [Initial Obligations Code – legislation which details exactly how the online copyright clamp-down under the Digital Economy Act will operate] is because the Government made a direct request to Ofcom that it should make it harder for people accused of copyright infringement to appeal the accusation.

The request comes under the guise of reducing costs of the scheme; however costs should not be of concern to government as the entire cost of running the measures are due to be met by copyright owners and, to a much lesser extent, by ISPs.

The request to narrow the grounds for appeal comes on top of the announcement at the start of this month that those wishing to appeal will have to pay an appeals fee before an appeal can be heard, renewing concerns from consumer groups that those on a low income will be denied access to justice.

Specifically, it seems:

The Government has asked Ofcom to remove a catch-all in the appeals process which allowed appeals to be made on "any other reasonable ground."

This catch-all was previously thought necessary, as the list of grounds for appeal was "non-exhaustive" and may need updating as technology evolves. Justice for internet subscribers is now dependent on Ofcom coming back with an exhaustive list of appeal grounds in the redrafted IOC; and, keeping this list up-to-date as technology evolves (and, presumably, updating the legislation in Parliament and notifying each update to the EC).

Ruling-out a public consultation makes it more likely that grounds will be overlooked.

This is not just appalling from a practical viewpoint, it is worrying from a political one: it shows that the UK government has no real interest in real justice or making the Digital Economy Act fair. Moreover, it appears to hell-bent on bringing in these changes in an underhand way that bespeaks nothing but contempt for the electorate.

So far, so conventional, you might think. But it doesn't have to be this way, as Labour politicians in New Zealand have just shown:

Tomorrow is the start date for the controversial new copyright law which provides owners of copyrighted works such as movies, TV shows and music a quicker and easier way to penalise people infringing their copyright via online file sharing

Labour voted for that law. Because at the time we thought it was the best thing to do. We've learnt from the experiences and we have moved on.

Today Labour announces copyright policy which significantly shifts our position.

If elected, we will introduce a Bill within 90 days to remove the termination clauses from the Copyright Act. Those clauses, which give the District Court the ability to impose account suspension as a remedy for infringing file sharing – can't work in the long term.

Moreover:

Labour will also undertake a review of the Copyright Act, with the aim of introducing a new Copyright Bill within 18 months that updates and extends the framework for digital copyright in New Zealand.

The first phase of the review will be to commission an independent analysis of the problems with the status quo from an eminent expert, such as the review Professor Hargreaves has recently conducted for the UK Prime Minister, and then consultation on a draft Bill before it is introduced.

That, of course, is precisely what the UK government has just done (to its credit); but its continued support for the Digital Economy Act's punitive approach to copyright suggests that this is window-dressing to a certain extent – or, at the very least, that the UK government is confused.

If it is, it could do worse than to read the rest of the post I've quoted from above in order to gain a clue. It's by the New Zealand MP Clare Curran, who shows her real and deep understanding of what exactly the shift to digital means for copyright and law when she writes:

the digital environment has changed our world. The old business model – where big companies had control over the distribution of creative works – doesn't apply anymore. Governments have to recognise that their citizens are hungry for information and creative material via the Internet.

…

What we are seeing is a digital revolution and it is our responsibility to ensure there is a balanced environment for creators and consumers in our country. New Zealand's legal and regulatory framework needs to enable creative expression and the industries that rely on it, not just penalise people for accessing information.

We believe in this country becoming a nation of makers. We must invest in our own economy. Invest in content. Invest in innovation and decide how we want to look in 5 or 10 years time.

Labour will properly address the issues of copyright in the digital age – and we'll involve New Zealanders in that discussion.

Kudos to Clare Curran for helping her fellow party members come to a better understanding of the Internet's impact on copyright, and kudos to the New Zealand Labour party for having the courage to admit that it was mistaken and to set about finding a new, workable policy in this area by involving the stakeholders who are the most important, but generally the least considered – the public. If only the UK government were half as brave or as insightful as their New Zealand colleagues.

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