We shouldn't play fast and loose with intellectual property

Copyright reform needs to be handled carefully.

In his recent blog post, Benjamin White of the British Library sets out a vision for copyright in the 21st century wholly at odds with the reality of life in 2012. Everywhere one looks in the digital economy, content creators and the companies which support them are working within the copyright framework to ensure that works are available online. It might not be perfect yet – very few developing technologies are – but we are clearly well on the way to making it so. 

The case for radically altering the copyright framework is simply not made. Yes, there is a strong case for making necessary, minor amendments. British creators supported such proposals when they were first made by the Gowers Review in 2007 and we support their reiteration by Hargreaves in 2011. We at the Publishers Association have also taken the lead in developing the Copyright Hub, a proposal for developing online licensing taken forward by Richard Hooper, based upon a Hargreaves recommendation.

Publishers are also leading the way in developing data and text mining, ensuring that licences are similar across different platforms and working towards a “click-through” process.  But to ensure that the systems that promote this technology are not compromised, and to ensure that valuable data repositories are not exposed to mass infringement, it is vital to ensure that mining processes are governed by a system of  managed licensed access. The blunt tool of a copyright exception would damage legitimate users of mining technology and is the wrong answer where the key question is the need for uniform technological standards.

The problem of orphan works is already being addressed, both by the EU’s Orphan Works Directive, adopted in September 2012, and the UK’s own provisions, currently moving through Parliament in the Enterprise & Regulatory Reform Bill. White fails to mention the development of the ARROW project (the Europe wide programme to develop an automated rights registry for orphan works. (ARROW’s trial with the British Library indicates that some 21 per cent of its works are orphan – significantly less than the 40 per cent that the BL estimates.) The British Library believes it should not have to pay for use of these in-copyright works; but respect for copyright and an acknowledgement that the enjoyment of a work should be associated with a payment, is a fundamental cornerstone of intellectual property.

Reform of copyright requires careful study and analysis. The Hargreaves Review failed to provide detailed economic research to back up many of its claims and the Review leader has publicly confessed that many of the economic benefits were guesses. Some proposals were not subject even to an estimate. So before the government and parliament go any further with taking forward reform proposals, they should ensure that there has been a robust, thorough and balanced assessment of their impact. In particular, proposals which would have the effect of undermining investment, growth and jobs in the creative and knowledge sector should be sent back to the drawing board.

Richard Mollet is chief executive of the Publishers Association

Books at the Bodleian Library's storage facility in Swindon (Photo: Getty Images)
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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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