Protectionism, ponies, and the Hargreaves Review
The industrial revolution is one of the most written-about periods in modern history, and as we are all fully aware it brought about many significant societal and economic changes.
On a micro level, mechanisation was bad news if you were an unskilled worker, or someone with very niche skills, such as a hand-weaver or some other one-trick pony. On the other hand, it was good news if you were an actual pony that was put out to pasture rather than spend its days hundreds of metres underground pulling cartfuls of coal.
There are winners and losers whenever there is a significant period of change. Recent announcements by Foxconn that increasing mechanisation in the factories where it produces the iPhone and other consumer electronic devices bear witness to this. Machine operators may find they no longer have a job. But some will have the opportunity to retrain in higher-value skills.
The urge to stop the tide of change can sometimes feel overwhelming. It is human nature to prefer the status quo – better the devil you know, and all that.
The displaced agricultural workers of the 17th and 18th Century didn’t have the luxury of hiring in lobbying groups. But in the face of seismic economic shifts in the 21st Century it is possible to see the same fears, concerns and protectionist attitudes in play.
Today’s announcement by the UK Business Secretary, Vince Cable, that the government is adopting the Hargreaves Review of Copyright and Intellectual Property is one such significant change.
One of Professor Hargreaves’ most compelling arguments (I heard him speak at the Westminster Legal Policy Forum) was that copyright and IP legal frameworks must perform two functions in harmony – protect the rights holder, and be a tool for economic development.
A rigid application of the current interpretation of UK copyright law, as laid down by the High Court in late 2010, would – in all likelihood – prevent a business like Google being created in the UK.
The case in question came about after Meltwater (a client I represent) and the PRCA were taken to the High Court by the Newspaper Licensing Agency (NLA), which seeks to collect unregulated licence fees on behalf of its owners – eight newspaper-publishing conglomerates.
Citing its belief that sending someone a URL from a newspaper (or similar) website is breaching copyright law, the NLA is effectively stifling the sharing of information and ideas online. Not only is this contrary to one of the fundamental building blocks of internet culture, it is an example of potentially dangerous protectionism.
The publishing sector has no choice but to react to and deal with the dominance of online media consumption. It is already hard to remember the time when we all got our breaking news updates from the TV news or the daily papers. That tide is unlikely to turn.
Rather than seek to use out-dated legislation to protect its interests, the newspaper industry would be better served evolving its business models and revenue streams to fit in with the way people want to consume information.
The Hargreaves Review is an excellent opportunity for the government and interested parties from industry to come together to create a copyright and IP framework in the UK that leads by example to the rest of the world. Innovation, creativity and flexibility are the cornerstones of economic growth and sustainable prosperity.
I for one hope that in years to come we will look back on this as the moment when the UK stepped up its game and became a true leader in the global digital economy.
Some further reading:
- Dear UK, the future of content and link sharing … is in your hands
- Taking link licensing to a higher level
- Meltwater applauds the UK Government’s commitment to overhaul its outdated copyright law