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Khanna's paper, while no more anti-copyright than a thousand silicon valley opinion columns, was retracted less than a day later, with the executive director of the Republican Study Committee – the organisation which published it – claiming it was: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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.