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Tim Cowlishaw [opinions]

A change of pace in the UK copyfight [uk] [copyrights] [reform]

It's unusual to see issues related to copyright law and its reform make much of an impact in the mainstream media here in the UK, but last week's report from the Institute of Public Policy Research, entitled Public Innovation: Intellectual Property in a Digital Age has been a notable exception. Despite its rather dry title and hundred-odd pages of academic wrangling, the IPPR's report provoked a furore of interest, due to the fact that it recommends giving consumers a 'right to private copy' - effectively legalising the 'format shifting' of media, for instance by copying a CD onto a user's PC or mp3 player.

This came as some surprise to a great many people, who had assumed that making 'private copies' in this way was already perfectly legal, leading to the unprecedented amount of publicity that the report received. While it is true that this particular aspect of the IPPR's recommendations is noteworthy in itself, it is also indicative of a fundamental departure from the typical UK view of copyright legislation, a development which offers hope for copyright liberals in the UK.

Unlike the US, we in the UK have no legal right to make copies of legitimately purchased copyrighted media, neither do we have what US citizens refer to as 'fair use' rights, having instead to make do with an altogether more limited set of 'exceptions and limitations' to copyright known as 'fair dealing'. The result of this is that despite the best efforts of the MPAA and RIAA, Jack Valenti and Mary Bono, many of us in the UK have a tendency to envy the comparative freedoms enjoyed by our neighbours on the other side of the Atlantic.

This discrepancy in the rights afforded to consumers by our respective copyright laws results in part from the differing justifications for copyright law in the two countries. Unlike the US, whose copyright law is based upon the impressively utilitarian concept of "promot[ing] the Progress of Science and useful Arts" enshrined in the constitution, Copyright legislation in the UK has, since approximately the 19th Century, typically been justified in terms of protecting the author's investment in their own work - inferring that authors have a 'natural right' to profit from the fruits of their labour [1].

As a result of this, changes in copyright legislation in the UK tend to lean in favour of copyright holders rather than the public interest, a situation which often seems to go unchallenged. However, the IPPR's report, as well as promoting specific consumer rights such as the 'right to private copy' that has been so widely publicised, is also notable for the fact that it is possibly the first report of its kind from a major political think-tank to advocate redefining copyright law from a standpoint that "recognises the interests of the public first and foremost" [2].

For all those in the UK involved in Free Culture or Free Software, or anyone who advocates the liberalisation of copyright law, this is a subtle but important victory. It is still very doubtful that the Gowers Review into Intellectual Property legislation will recommend the drastic curtailment of copyright term, the immediate repealment of any laws outlawing the circumvention of DRM, or any of the other measures that I and many others hope for. However, the fact that policy makers are beginning to recognise the importance of public access to knowledge, and the advantages of basing information policy primarily on public interest is a fundamental paradigm shift which has the potential to lead to further advances for the Free Culture and Free Software movements.

A PDF copy of the IPPR's report can be obtained from the BBC Website.

Hard copy can be purchased directly from the IPPR.

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 License.


[1] DAVIS, Jennifer - 'Core Texts Series: Intellectual Property Law - Second Edition' Oxford University Press, 2005.

[2] DAVIES, William and WITHERS, Kaye - 'Public Innovation: Intellectual Property in a Digital Age', IPPR 2006


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