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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We knew we’d become proper pop stars when we got a car like George Michael’s

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

One of the clichés about celebrity life is that all celebrities know each other. Back in the Eighties, when we were moderately famous, Ben and I did often bump into other famous people, and because of mutual recognition, there was a sort of acquaintance, if not friendship.

There was a random element to it, as well. Some celebrities you might never catch a glimpse of, while others seemed to pop up with an unexpected regularity.

In 1987, the car we drove was a 1970s Austin Princess, all leather seats and walnut dashboard. In many ways, it symbolised what people thought of as the basic qualities of our band: unassuming, a little bit quirky, a little bit vintage. We’d had it for a year or so, but Ben was running out of patience. It had a habit of letting us down at inconvenient moments – for instance, at the top of the long, steep climbs that you encounter when driving through Italy, which we had just recklessly done for a holiday. The car was such a novelty out there that it attracted crowds whenever we parked. They would gather round, nodding appreciatively, stroking the bonnet and murmuring, “Bella macchina . . .”

Having recently banked a couple of royalty cheques, Ben was thinking of a complete change of style – a rock’n’roll, grand-gesture kind of car.

“I wanna get an old Mercedes 300 SL,” he said to me.

“What’s one of those?”

“I’ll let you know next time we pass one,” he said.

We were driving through London in the Princess, and as we swung round into Sloane Square, Ben called out, “There’s one, look, coming up on the inside now!” I looked round at this vision of gleaming steel and chrome, gliding along effortlessly beside us, and at the same moment the driver glanced over towards our funny little car. We made eye contact, then the Merc roared away. It was George Michael.

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

We’d always had a soft spot for George, even though we seemed to inhabit opposite ends of the pop spectrum. He’d once been on a TV review show and said nice things about our first album, and I knew he had liked my solo single “Plain Sailing”. We’d done a miners’ benefit gig where Wham! had appeared, slightly out of place in their vests, tans and blond bouffants. There had been a bit of sneering because they’d mimed. But I remember thinking, “Good on you for even being here.” Their presence showed that being politically active, or even just caring, wasn’t the sole preserve of righteous indie groups.

A couple of weeks later, we were driving along again in the Princess, when who should pull up beside us in traffic? George again. He wound down his window, and so did we. He was charming and called across to say that, yes, he had recognised us the other day in Sloane Square. He went on to complain that BBC Radio 1 wouldn’t play his new single “because it was too crude”. “What’s it called?” asked Ben. “ ‘I Want Your Sex’!” he shouted, and roared away again, leaving us laughing.

We’d made up our minds by now, and so we went down to the showroom, flashed the cash, bought the pop-star car and spent the next few weeks driving our parents up and down the motorway with the roof off. It was amazing: even I had to admit that it was a thrill to be speeding along in such a machine.

A little time passed. We were happy with our glamorous new purchase, when one day we were driving down the M1 and, yes, you’ve guessed it, in the rear-view mirror Ben saw the familiar shape coming up behind. “Bloody hell, it’s George Michael again. I think he must be stalking us.”

George pulled out into the lane alongside and slowed down as he drew level with us. We wound down the windows. He gave the car a long look, up and down, smiled that smile and said, “That’s a bit more like it.” Then he sped away from us for the last time.

Cheers, George. You were friendly, and generous, and kind, and you were good at being a pop star.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge