Playing catch-up

Copyright in the digital age lags behind the letter of the current laws

Late last month, a 26-year-old in Gloucestershire was arrested "in connection with offences relating to the facilitation of copyright infringement". The man in question was the webmaster of, a website containing a list of links to TV programmes and films available on the internet. The programmes, although hosted by household names such as Google Video and YouTube, are often there without the rightsholders' consent. According to the Federation Against Copyright Theft (Fact), which issued a press release the following week, the arrest was made during a joint operation between Fact, the police and local trading standards.

Until the matter reaches a conclusion in court, we will not know whether the man's activities can be prosecuted under copyright law. Indeed, although the event follows on from the bolstering in April of Trading Standards' resources and power to enforce copyright law, the arrest was made under Section 92 of the Trademarks Act - familiar grounds for the regulator, if not wholly applicable to a website linking to ripped-off TV programmes. But, like the raids on torrent tracker OiNK, also last month, the arrest made one thing clear: the UK is getting tough on copyright infringement.

In December last year, when the government accepted all the recommendations made by Andrew Gowers in his review of intellectual property law, it looked like good news. But the news was only good if the carrot of legal reform - allowing consumers to copy CDs on to iPods, artists to reinvent and parody work, and libraries to digitally preserve copyrighted works - accompanied the beat of the stick of enforcement in good time. A year later, and while at least one of the report's enforcement recommendations has already materialised, suggestions around flexibility remain on the drawing board.

The UK Intellectual Property Office is tasked with bringing in this latter set of legal reforms - but the complexity of the statutes has delayed by at least six months what was already set to be a long consultation. Gowers's most progressive recommendation - that the digital age required new exceptions that allowed people to remix and transform work - has yet to be timetabled. Meanwhile, enforcement continues apace.

Most recently, Lord Triesman, parliamentary under-secretary for innovation, universities and skills, re-emphasised the government's intention - following Gowers - to legislate for the removal and disbarring of users engaged in "piracy" if no similar voluntary agreement between internet service providers and rightsholder groups like Fact was forthcoming. If the pace of reform does not catch up, and quickly, with the pace of enforcement, then far from looking like a breath of fresh air, the Gowers review will be remembered as a tool of surveillance and punishment.

Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist. She was formerly the technology director of award-winning current affairs website, and Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, a grassroots digital civil liberties organisation.

This article first appeared in the 12 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, 3 easy steps to save the planet