Does the entertainment industry have too much power?

In America a congressional staffer gets fired, and in Britain an indie music website gets blocked, all in the name of rent-seeking.

Vested interests have too much say in most areas of public policy, but only in some do they actually have direct control. Two stories today highlight the ridiculous amount of authority which governments all over the world have ceded to entertainment industries when it comes to creating and enforcing intellectual property law.

In the USA, a Republican congressional staffer called Derek Khanna wrote a memo titled "Three Myths About Copyright Law and Where To Start To Fix It" (mirrored here). It was a strong piece, arguing that it was untrue to claim that:

  1. The purpose of copyright is to compensate the creator of content;
  2. Copyright is free market capitalism at work; or
  3. The current copyright legal regime leads to the greatest innovation and productivity.

(The first is certainly mythical, at least in the US context, where the explicit reason for copyright is "to promote the progress of science and useful arts"; arguing against the second, he attempts to appeal to his fellow Republicans by repositioning copyright protection as a big-government-bestowed monopoly; and against the third – really, where the meat lies – he points out that current US copyright law is far more concerned with rent-seeking than encouraging creation of new works.)

Khanna's paper, while no more anti-copyright than a thousand silicon valley opinion columns, was retracted less than a day later, with the executive director of the Republican Study Committee – the organisation which published it – claiming it was:

Was published without adequate review [and failed to approach the topic] with all facts and viewpoints in hand.

That's not what the insider story is, though. Techdirt's Mike Masnick wrote:

The report had been fully vetted and reviewed by the RSC before it was released. However, as soon as it was published, the MPAA and RIAA apparently went ballistic and hit the phones hard, demanding that the RSC take down the report. They succeeded.

Yesterday, Khanna was fired. The Washington Examiner's Timothy P. Carney [explains]:

The reason, according to two Republicans within the RSC: angry objections from Rep. Marsha Blackburn, whose district abuts Nashville, Tenn. In winning a fifth term earlier in the month, Blackburn received more money from the music industry than any other Republican congressional candidate, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Blackburn's office did not return calls seeking comment.

Again, it's worth pointing out that nothing Khanna said was new, or outrageous, and his paper was picked up approvingly by other liberatarian-minded conservatives like Virginia Postrel and Alex Tabarrok. His only mistake was writing it while working in a position where the complaints of the entertainment industry could get him fired.

Meanwhile, in the UK, our music industry has been taking an even more active role in the law, hand-picking which websites are allowed to publish. Music website the Promo Bay is a side project of file-sharing website the Pirate Bay which allows independent artists to upload their own songs to be shared freely. Not only is there no copyright infringement going on, there is actually a queue to be featured.

Nonetheless, the BPI – industry body of the British record industry – obtained a court order to block the Promo Bay, listing it as a domain:

Whose sole or predominant purpose is to enable or facilitate access to The Pirate Bay website.

That block which was only rescinded after a petition and complaint from the Open Rights Group.

It is clear that the Promo Bay was wrongly blocked – possibly by accident, possibly due to an overzealous claim by the BPI. What's less clear is why we should accept a situation where a single mistaken claim by an industry group can censor, without warning or appeal, a popular, useful, and legal site. After all, the New Statesman has linked to file-sharing sites – in an effort to get round the "Great Firewall of China". Should we be fearing a court order?

The Promo Bay logo.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage